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The Great Depression, which began in 1929 and lasted through the 1930s, was a time ofgreat hardship for most Americans. Approximately one-fourth of the nation’s entire labor force—or over 15 million people, both skilled and unskilled—lost their jobs, and malnutrition and hunger were rampant. The economy had collapsed, and the financial system was in disarray. Millions of Americans struggled to survive from day to day, and the administration of the Republican president Herbert Hoover offered the people little hope and no effective action to address this dire situation. When the Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed the office of president in 1933, he immediately launched an ambitious set of programs known as the ”New Deal.” President Roosevelt’s initiatives began to bring some economic relief and stability to the nation. Nevertheless, the New Deal was not able to solve the burning issues of justice and equality for poor people and people of color.
Americans who had little to begin with were among the hardest hit by the Great Depression. People who had already been living in poverty, a disproportionate number of whom were people of color, had fewer resources to call upon in this time of want. Across the nation, but particularly in regions of prolonged drought (known as the ”Dust Bowl” in Texas and Oklahoma), poor farmers were forced from their land when they were unable to pay their rent or mortgage. White farmers from these regions left their homes by the thousands. Known as ”Okies,” they traveled westward looking for work and opportunity, and they met with widespread discrimination along the way.
If life was difficult for poor white farmers, people of color faced even greater hardships as they contended with the added burdens of racism and segregation. African Americans were often the ”last hired and first fired”; unemployment in African-American communities was extremely high, and many families existed on the brink of starvation, especially in the urban South. In the Southwest, Mexican Americans faced deportation and hostile treatment because many whites blamed them for taking their jobs. Native Americans across the country simply tried to survive in what, for them, had been hard times for decades. Roughly 65 percent of people of color worked in sectors such as tenant farming, migrant farm work, and domestic work. These types of jobs were not covered by most New Deal programs, meaning that these workers were not even eligible for most forms of assistance.
However, when President Roosevelt took office in 1933, his new programs and ”fireside chats” over the radio waves brought hope to many people. Americans from all walks of life waited for the end of hard times, expecting the New Deal to make it happen. New Deal programs attempted to focus on a few key areas, including welfare programs, business and industrial recovery, and systemic reform. The idea was to provide economic assistance to people in the short term and generate jobs to improve the economy over the long term. Reform in labor and business laws and practices were designed to help prevent a similar occurrence in the future.
The New Deal took place in two waves. Its first incarnation, in 1933 and 1934, included programs and legislation such as the Federal Emergency Relief Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and the National Labor Relations Board. The Second New Deal, begun in 1935, sought to move beyond the more immediate foci of the first and reestablish a stable, national economy. This effort included new structures like the Works Progress Administration and the National Youth Administration, as well as legislation like the Social Security Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938. Unfortunately, these programs did not always live up to the ideals of national unity and opportunity from which they ostensibly emerged. Although the nation as a whole benefited in many ways from these initiatives, the gains were not equally distributed. In many ways the New Deal seemed to reinforce the same old system of privilege and preference from which middle- and upper-class whites gained and others lost.
African Americans And The New Deal
By the early 1930s, close to half of all African-American workers were no longer employed, and the establishment of equal job opportunities had become a crucial issue for the black community. The National Recovery Administration (NRA), established in 1933, sought to establish fair rules and codes with regard to wages, prices, and competition in the labor market. In order to try to provide workers with a better standard of living and more purchasing power to stimulate economic growth, the NRA established relatively high standards for wages. In the South, where blacks were always paid much less than whites, many employers did not want to hire blacks under the new wage structure. Nevertheless, NRA rules would not allow wage differentials. It was an impossible dilemma for an administration not willing to challenge segregation. NRA leadership did not want to allow different pay structures for blacks and whites, but in general they did not have the political will or power to force white employers to hire blacks in positions with equal pay. White employers tried to find ways around the NRA policy by changing job descriptions so that jobs were not covered by these rules, and many employers simply refused to hire blacks.
Black newspapers and community organizations tried to work with government officials to publicize violations of NRA rules and gain justice for blacks facing discrimination. But they struggled vainly to find government officials who would take meaningful action against white business owners. Some African-American workers quietly accepted lower wages when faced with the choice between less money and no money. A few black organizations even advocated for different pay rates, arguing that the lower-paying jobs would provide some security in an atmosphere in which blacks were not getting hired at all. Blacks in the labor force worked in the agricultural and domestic sectors of the economy, and these types of jobs were not deemed eligible for assistance through the NRA. Thus, not only was the NRA ineffective in helping those African Americans it did include, it excluded a large proportion of them from the outset.
The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) of 1933 addressed a different area of the economy. This act was an attempt to improve the situation of American farmers by cutting back on agricultural production in order to cause an increase in the price of agricultural commodities. In 1935, however, approximately 40 percent of the nation’s farmers were sharecroppers and many of these people were forced to leave the land where they worked and lived when it went out of production. African-American tenant farmers, already living in poverty, debt, and oppression, received very little assistance from this program. Cotton plantations, in particular, decreased production and forced thousands of sharecroppers, black and white, from their homes. Black sharecroppers who managed to stay on their land often did not receive subsidy payments directed to them because white landowners kept the money for ”debts” and rent.
Overall, other New Deal programs also accepted the status quo and allowed existing discriminatory practices to continue. The Federal Housing Authority acquiesced to the practice of segregating real estate markets in hopes of maintaining social stability through segregation. This policy contributed to the development of racial ghettos in urban areas. The Social Security Act excluded jobs in which large proportions of people of color were employed and had no specific prohibitions against discrimination, while the National Labor Relations Act established precedents allowing largely white unions to refuse admission to blacks. At bottom, the legislation establishing these programs was written with subtle exceptions and loopholes favored by a U.S. Congress containing one black representative and dominated by southern Democrats committed to the racial status quo.
Shifting Alliances: African Americans Turn To The Democrats
Even though New Deal programs did not adequately address the needs of black people, many blacks began to switch their political loyalties from the Republicans to the Democrats. The Republican Party was the party of Lincoln and black emancipation, yet it had lost much of its appeal to black voters. When Roosevelt and the New Deal arrived, many blacks thought that economic improvement would be accompanied by an improvement in their sociopolitical status in the United States. Furthermore, the Roosevelt administration appointed several black leaders to relatively high positions in the New Deal administration, something never before seen in Washington. Among those given positions were Robert C. Weaver, who worked in the Interior Department and would later become America’s first black member of the president’s cabinet (under Lyndon Johnson); William H. Hastie, a pioneering black federal judge who also worked in the Department of the Interior; Eugene Kinckle Jones, advisor on Negro affairs for the Commerce Department from 1933 to 1937 and a former executive directory of the Urban League; Edgar Brown, an adviser on Negro Affairs in the Civilian Conservation Corps; Lawrence Oxley, head of the Negro Division of the Department of Labor; William J. Trent, a race relations officer in the Federal Works Agency; and Mary McLeod Bethune, who worked in the National Youth Administration. With Bethune as their leader in an informal group called the ”Black Cabinet,” these and many other black appointees gave voice to the concerns of African-Americans. There were more than a few sympathetic white leaders in the administration, including Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a personal friend of Bethune, and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, a former head of the NAACP’s Chicago chapter. Although the influence of these black and white New Deal officials was limited, the fact that such influence even existed was an important precedent. The mere establishment of African-American administrative units within government agencies represented the nation’s first outreach toward the national black community since the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees, and Abandoned Lands was set up in 1865.
Up until 1936, most black voters chose Republicans when they went to the polls, but the gradual move to the Democrats picked up steam, and Roosevelt received much of the black vote that year. Paradoxically, Roosevelt did nothing to improve the political rights of blacks, particularly with regard to voting rights in the South, nor did he promote anti-lynching legislation. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had been working for years on getting an anti-lynching bill through Congress, and in April 1937, after several well-publicized lynchings of African-Americans in the South, Representative Joseph A. Gavagan of New York succeeded in getting a version of the anti-lynching bill passed in the House of Representatives, despite opposition from southern Democrats. Getting it through the Senate was an entirely different matter, however. In the Senate, southern Democrats organized a filibuster that lasted six weeks and effectively stopped the bill.
During these dramatic events, Roosevelt was largely silent, despite the fact that he had the support of most African Americans. It is likely that his need for the political support of southern Democrats won out over any thoughts about taking a stand against racist violence in the South. The desire to maintain his office and keep the Democratic Party in the majority seemed to take precedence over ideals of equality and justice. At that point in history, blacks were prevented from exercising their political rights in many parts of the country, so concerns about whether or not they would continue to be loyal to the party were not paramount. White southern Democrats, however, controlled most of the votes and money in the South, and the political status quo remained unchanged.
Latinos And The New Deal
During the Great Depression, and throughout the New Deal, all members of politically marginalized communities in the United States faced a desperate struggle. Blacks and many Latinos living in cities like Detroit and Chicago were fired so that whites could take their positions. In the Southwest there were organized movements to force Mexican Americans out of jobs in order to provide openings for whites. Mexicans living in the United States, as well as Mexican-American citizens, provided a useful scapegoat for white fears and anxiety during the Great Depression. In the states of the Southwest, where segregation policies discriminating against people of Mexican descent were already in full force, public outcry in the white community painted a stereotyped picture of white jobs being taken by Mexican workers. In response, the Roosevelt administration carried out mass deportations, during which hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps as many as one million, were detained and sent to Mexico. Within that group were many Mexican-American citizens who had been born in the United States. Anyone appearing to be from Mexico was subject to arrest and deportation. Families and lives were disrupted, children were separated from their parents, and some who had never lived in Mexico found themselves ejected from their country of birth.
Native Americans And The New Deal
As for Native Americans, they were among the poorest of the poor before the Depression hit. It could be argued that most Native American communities were already living in economic depression. Even so, the 1930s meant even fewer opportunities and resources in their communities. Nationally, there was considerable variety in the experience of Native Americans, depending upon their tribal affiliation and the region in which they lived. Yet Native people did have an advocate in the New Deal in the person of John Collier, the man appointed by Roosevelt as Indian Affairs Commissioner. The Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934, spearheaded by Collier, ostensibly advocated religious and cultural autonomy for Native peoples, yet the programs established by the act were implemented in a way that promoted assimilation and the loss of indigenous culture. Collier had hoped to help promote self-determination for Native American communities, but he was not able to persuade Congress to pass a strong bill that offered what he considered adequate support for Native Americans. The version of the IRA that did pass was not well funded or well structured in its approach.
Programs were pushed on Native American communities without the involvement or input of local leaders. The overall structure of what is often called the ”Indian New Deal” was guided by the historical stereotype held by many whites that all Native American peoples were the same. Regional and tribal differences— in terms of needs, values, and organization—were not taken into account in the one-size-fits-all approach of the New Deal. Programs seeking to provide employment to Native Americans were limited and often did not provide them with real opportunities to move beyond low-wage jobs. Economic development programs promoted assimilation and devalued traditional ways. Native Americans living in urban areas faced the same struggles as blacks and Latinos, including losing their jobs before whites did and getting hired only when there were no whites applying. Native people living on reservations away from towns and cities received very few services, and outreach to them was not effectively implemented. For their part, many Native American communities and organizations found ways to adapt to the changing world without giving in to the pressure to assimilate. There was a resurgence of cultural pride and a recognition that the diverse Native groups shared a common struggle.
Lost Opportunities And The Move Toward Change
The Roosevelt administration and the programs of the New Deal are often seen as the beginning of a liberal movement in America favoring working families, and the interests of people of color are often assumed to have been included. The reality of the New Deal policies and their implementation is not so simple, however, and careful examination of the time period suggests that the New Deal did very little to address institutionalized social inequality based on race in the United States. With a focus on getting and keeping the economy moving again, the New Deal sought first to address the needs of those groups most instrumental in developing and maintaining the productive capacity of the nation. By and large this meant that it was concerned with the interests of big business, large landowning farmers, and the dominant trade unions. Poor people and people of color were grossly underrepresented in these interest groups; the New Deal attended to them only as parts of the larger system. Even so, Roosevelt and his administrative leadership did not completely ignore them, and for the first time in American history people of color gained some access to the power structure of the nation.
Moreover, during this process, organizations representing the needs of poor people and people of color did not stay silent or inactive. Perhaps heartened by the fact that at least some government officials were beginning to notice them and recognize inequality, the Urban League and the NAACP, along with a score of smaller interracial groups, supported the formation of the Joint Committee on National Recovery (JCNR), founded by John P. Davis and Robert C. Weaver. While the JCNR was unable to seriously influence Congress, it succeeded in making public the inequalities and inequities of the many recovery programs. So while the New Deal programs were altogether ineffective at addressing racial injustice, people concerned with social justice were able to sense a possible opening and began to push for more equality. At the end of the New Deal, World War II diverted the energy and attention of the whole nation, but as the war ended and the country returned its focus to domestic issues, the discussion of equality and justice began again, eventually evolving into the civil rights struggles that began in the 1950s—and that in many ways continue in the early twenty-first century.
- Balderrama, Francisco, and Raymond Rodriguez. 1995. Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
- Holmes, Michael. 1972. ”The Blue Eagle as ‘Jim Crow Bird’: The NRA and Georgia’s Black Workers.” Journal of Negro History 57 (3): 276-283.
- Kennedy, David. 1999. ”How FDR Lost the Struggle to Enact an Antilynching Bill.” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (25): 120-121.
- Kersey, Harry A., Jr. 1989. The Florida Seminoles and the New Deal, 1933—1942. Boca Raton: Florida Atlantic University Press.
- Sitkoff, Harvard. 1978. A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as National Issue. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Sullivan, Patricia. 1996. Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Taylor, Graham. 1980. The New Deal and American Indian Tribalism: The Administration of the Indian Reorganization Act, 1934—1945. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
- Valocchi, Steve. 1994. ”The Racial Basis of Capitalism and the State, and the Impact of the New Deal on /African Americans.” Social Problems 41 (3): 347-362.
- Zinn, Howard. 1980. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper & Row.
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