The New Deal State and Segregation

The riddle of the New Deal’s attitude toward segregation can only be unraveled by examining the fundamental nature of the capitalist state.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Rex Tugwell, a member of the New Deal brain trust, visiting the town of Greenbelt in Maryland. (MPI / Getty Images)

In a recent exchange in these pages, Richard Walker and Richard Rothstein sparred over the culpability of the New Deal in the invention, elaboration, or perpetuation of racial segregation. In his pointed critique of Rothstein’s Color of Law, Walker claims that racism and racial segregation were “deeply embedded in American social structures” and that the New Deal only reluctantly “lined up with the prevailing practices of racial segregation.” This is a familiar refrain in New Deal scholarship, that pragmatic concessions to Jim Crow — in the South and in Congress — were the price for any progress on social, labor, or housing policy.

In his rejoinder, Rothstein argues that “the New Deal did not merely concede to private bigotry but pursued independent racial policies that did much to create a segregated landscape,” and, more important, that we should have expected much more from federal policy. It is one thing for rapacious realtors and racist homeowners associations to sustain segregation, in this view, but it is quite another for public actors with the Fourteenth Amendment in their back pocket to do the same.

Both Walker and Rothstein make strong points, and the distance between the two is not as wide as either suggest. There is substantial agreement that private and public mechanisms of segregation were well established before the 1930s. Walker is unsurprised that federal housing policy echoed, protected, sustained, and embedded these mechanisms. Rothstein, for his part, is horrified.

Unspoken, or at least understated, in this last point of contention is any broader expectation or theory about state action or policy choices under such circumstances. Especially in times of economic crisis, how and why do class interests exercise political power? How much autonomy do state actors have? And, if we assume that economic interests occupy a privileged political position (because they have both the incentive and the resources to influence political outcomes), what would it take for popular mobilization to erase that advantage?

These useful questions have dominated the political sociology of the New Deal for the last generation, yet they seem to barely register in this debate. How might closer attention to these questions sharpen our understanding of the origins, motives, and consequences of New Deal housing policy?

Much of the early critical political history of the New Deal echoed Engels’s famous observation that “the State is nothing more than a machine for the oppression of one class by another.” In this instrumental view of state power, capital (or fractions of capital) simply slide into positions of political power and use the law and police power to bolster or purse their interests. This is the basic premise behind G. William Domhoff’s Who Rules America (first published in 1967) and a raft of scholarship that has unearthed corporate cabals behind even the most progressive of New Deal policies.

This instrumentalism is an important undercurrent of the Rothstein-Walker exchange. Both are primarily interested in who made the key decisions and why; both, in their way, argue that the New Deal failed to protect or advance equal protection in housing because segregationists and real-estate interests elbowed aside more progressive voices. Rothstein points to the clout of segregationists in the administration and in Congress. Walker blames the vested housing interests that effectively drafted, lobbied for, and administered the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), and the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae). The irony here — as Walker and Rothstein each assemble their lineup of culprits — is that Walker accuses Rothstein of “bolstering conservative positions” and enabling a more general attack on the affirmative state. But it is Walker’s argument that more closely resembles the libertarian version of instrumentalism, in which public policies are invariably captured by the very interests they are intended to reign in or regulate.

The instrumental view of the state lost some of its appeal as capitalist democracies easily weathered the upheaval of the late 1960s. For many, instrumentalism seemed incapable of explaining how the state  chose among fractions of capital, how it so easily contained and rebuffed popular mobilization, or how it overcame the short-term interests and anxieties of the ruling class in order to ensure the stability of the larger enterprise. In a famous exchange with Ralph Miliband in New Left Review in the early 1970s, Nicos Poulantzas articulated an alternative structural explanation of class power.

Poulantzas, drawing on the work of Althusser, Gramsci, Foucault, and others, suggested that the state in capitalist society was not an instrument of the ruling class but a structural safeguard of the larger social system — capable of mediating class conflict, pushing aside short-sighted class interests, and bolstering the ideological, political, and cultural legitimacy of capitalism itself. In this view, the presence of class interests in positions of political power was unimportant, a consequence rather than a cause of state interests and priorities.

This structuralism is an important undercurrent of the Rothstein-Walker exchange. For Walker, the architecture of racial segregation was fully perfected by private and local interests long before the 1930s, and “federal promotion of zoning, mortgage guarantees, and public housing mostly lined up with the prevailing practices of racial segregation.” What is left undeveloped here is why New Deal policies aligned so closely with “prevailing practices.” Was the New Deal powerless to offer any alternative? Was its housing policy — as Robert Weaver famously put it — simply “given over to the real estate boys”? Or did federal policy, as a matter of course, kick in to protect and sustain existing mechanisms of property valuation and capital accumulation in American housing markets?

At this point, Walker and Rothstein are dancing around many of the same issues that animated the instrumentalist-structuralist debate of the 1970s. Instrumentalism seemed to reduce historical explanation to the navigation of “follow the money” rabbit holes. Structuralism, whose mode of explanation was essentially functional, cared little for historical actors or agency (it was, as Miliband put it, an “exceedingly formalized ballet of evanescent shadows”).

One way out of this theoretical cul-de-sac was first suggested by Fred Block’s 1977 essay, “The Ruling Class Does Not Rule.” Block acknowledged the insights and limits of the instrumental and structural approaches and suggested a middle ground in which state actors enjoyed “relative autonomy,” as long as their policies sustained the profitability, stability, and legitimacy of the larger social system. “Those who manage the state apparatus,” Block wrote, “regardless of their own political ideology — are dependent on the maintenance of some reasonable level of economic activity.” In this respect, as Charles Lindblom would put it a few years later, markets imprisoned policy but — inside that razor-wire boundary — they did not determine it.

This, in a sense, is Walker’s argument — that prevailing patterns of segregation set stark parameters or boundaries for New Deal interventions in housing and housing finance. But this is a view that Rothstein, for whom the priorities and possibilities of the New Deal are open-ended and its failures self-inflicted, would reject out of hand.

A Misplaced Disagreement

Reading the Walker-Rothstein exchange against this theoretical background is complicated in a couple of important ways. The first of these is a matter of scale or jurisdiction. The context for the instrumental-structural debate is the nation-state, and yet most of the substantive policy-making in this case — including municipal incorporation, land-use zoning, the enforcement of race-restrictive deed covenants, and the exercise of the police power more generally — is rooted in local authority. Federal housing policy either necessarily (Walker) or cravenly (Rothstein) deferred to those decisions and to those interests.

There are a couple of ways of approaching this. One tack would be to assume that the instrumental or structural forces that shape national policy are simply replicated in smaller jurisdictions. Policy choices at each level of government — municipal, county, state — are constrained by both common concerns and priorities (ensuring economic growth and stability) and by conditions (such as fiscal capacity) peculiar to that jurisdiction. It is in this vein — following the lead of Harvey Molotch — that we think of local government units as “growth machines,” concerned above all with local economic growth, a favorable business climate, the dampening of social conflict, and the protection of property values. This is substantially Walker’s point when he asserts that “nearly everyone of importance in city building and public policy in the early twentieth century agreed on the desirability of racial segregation, whether in the interests of outright racism, or for the purposes of keeping the peace or upholding land values.”

Another tack would be to treat local actors and local policies as a particular subset of interests or constraints in the national political calculus. In its quest for economic growth, social stability, and political legitimacy, the national state might be constrained by both the structural demands of the economic system, and by the ways in which those structural demands have already been negotiated or accommodated in state and local jurisdictions.

The second complication is that of establishing motive or interest. The context for the instrumental-structural debate is resolutely economic, and yet the stakes, in this case, are mostly about racial stratification and racial boundaries. The overlap here is considerable, especially if we — as Walker does — accept the contemporary conviction that racial segregation was simply and purely a defense of property values. But, especially in the longer run, segregation also clogged up the gears of the urban growth machine — distorting local realty markets, abetting economic decline and deindustrialization, and destroying wealth, value, and fiscal capacity in central cites.

In turn, it is hard to cleanly align the local politics of racial segregation with class rule. While realtors, developers, and other property interests exploited and profited from racial occupancy and racial transition, the defensive localism that maintained the color line in northern cities was rooted in white anxieties and prejudices. This “crabgrass-roots politics,” as Tom Sugrue and others have suggested, “seriously limited the social and egalitarian possibilities of the New Deal order.”

Against this backdrop, the disagreement between Walker and Rothstein seems fundamentally misplaced. The issue is not whether the Roosevelt administration was powerless or cowardly in the face of private segregation, but how and why the American state — at a moment of unprecedented economic crisis — made the choices it did. State actors, in this context, were imprisoned not just by the market but by what Ira Katznelson has dubbed “the southern cage.” In these confines, what was lost was not just a more progressive economic program, but any pretense of universalism or equal protection.

These were not reluctant compromises or corrupt concessions. Racial segregation — not just in housing but in social and labor policy as well — was elemental to the New Deal. The resulting “architecture of protection,” as Jennifer Mittlestadt has argued, “was built in part on the backs of those who were denied full economic and social citizenship.” Neither Rothstein’s dashed expectations nor Walker’s wistful nostalgia should distract us from these facts.