Is Joseph Robinette Biden Jr the new Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Many people would certainly like to think so. Prominent among them is his chief of staff, Ron Klain, who has enthusiastically pushed the comparison.
Many on the Left are, of course, skeptical of such premature canonization. But skepticism has also come from another direction. Recently, House majority whip Jim Clyburn argued that “if [Biden’s] going to have credibility, [he] must be much closer to Harry Truman than to Franklin Roosevelt. . . . I hear people talking about Joe Biden all the time comparing him to FDR. FDR’s legacy was not good for black people.”
Clyburn’s skepticism about FDR’s legacy for racial inequality vocalizes what’s become a common theme in liberal-progressive views of the New Deal. While FDR’s administration was the lodestar for liberal ideals into the 1970s, recently, both scholars and activists have argued that the New Deal in fact served mainly to entrench racial inequality in the United States through its exclusions of black workers. In the words of political scientist Ira Katznelson, many of its programs functioned as affirmative action for white people.
In the current moment, this revisionist perspective on the New Deal has dovetailed with contemporary liberalism’s conviction that racial disparities can only be remedied by race-specific programs and that universalist social policy is inevitably exclusionary. But such a perspective occludes the radically egalitarian politics of many New Deal programs.
Before discussing the New Deal’s importance for racial equality, however, it’s important to acknowledge some of the real points its critics have made. Many New Deal programs did deepen racial inequality by offering a hand to white workers while denying one to black workers. The most central of these is undoubtedly the Federal Housing Administration, which subsidized mortgages. In cooperation with the banks, the FHA denied mortgages to home buyers in black neighborhoods, enforcing segregation even in cities without Jim Crow laws. Many other programs operated on a segregated basis and handed out less aid to black workers than white.
But if this were the only story of the New Deal and race, it would be difficult to explain why, after seventy years in which black voters followed Frederick Douglass’s judgment that “the Republican Party is the ship, all else is the sea,” they enthusiastically joined the New Deal electoral coalition in 1936.
In 1932, when FDR challenged Herbert Hoover, this attachment to the party of Lincoln still held. Across the urban North, where the vast majority of black voters lived (black Southerners were largely disenfranchised), scholars estimate that Hoover received between two-thirds and three-quarters of the black vote. A mere four years later, the new GOP standard-bearer, Alf Landon, had a very strong civil rights record. He supported federal anti-lynching legislation, and his campaign directly targeted the discriminatory administration of many New Deal programs. Despite this, he received about 28 percent of the black vote. Black voters had finally, in the words of one black newspaper editor, “turn[ed] the picture of Abraham Lincoln to the wall.”
If the New Deal was, in Clyburn’s words, “not good for black people,” this transformation is unintelligible, if not perverse.
In fact, even as some New Deal programs entrenched racial inequality, others assailed it. Public employment programs in the New Deal employed huge numbers of black workers. Administrators like Harold Ickes, in charge of the Public Works Administration, were dedicated foes of racism and actually made sure their programs employed black workers proportionally more than white workers.
Other programs contributed to the incredible explosion of black cultural production in the 1930s. Writers like Richard Wright and Arna Bontemps were paid by the Federal Writers’ Project to write, supporting them and allowing them to develop their talents. Zora Neale Hurston, who later became a conservative critic of the welfare state and civil rights, was able to publish her classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God in part because she had worked for the FWP chronicling the lives of black Southerners while writing it.
At the same time, the fillip the New Deal gave to labor organizing encouraged the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), made up of unions who broke away from the exclusionary model of craft unionism promoted by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Though the records of CIO unions on race varied, many embraced a model of civil rights unionism that challenged inequality both in the workplace and in the community. W. E. B. Du Bois said the CIO had been more successful in fighting racial prejudice than any movement in three decades.
The New Deal was big and complicated. A comprehensive assessment of its implications for racial equality is the task of a book, not an article. But one aspect of the New Deal deserves special attention, given its neglect in most discussions of this subject — the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC).
The FEPC was established in 1941, as the United States prepared for its inevitable entry into World War II. Pressured by black socialist A. Philip Randolph, Roosevelt had issued Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in defense industries (which in the wartime economy would be a substantial fraction of the whole). The FEPC was the body charged with making this goal a reality.
From the start, the FEPC was hobbled by opposition from capital and Southern politicians. In the South, it was effectively a dead letter, as the combined strength of employers and local politicians easily overwhelmed the committee’s meager resources. But elsewhere in the country, the committee worked by soliciting complaints about discrimination, holding public hearings into particularly recalcitrant employers, and working behind the scenes with employers, unions, and black workers to find ways to integrate the latter into the defense workforce.
The impact of this work was tremendous. During the 1940s, the black-white wage gap shrank more quickly than any decade since. For a long time, economists attributed this simply to wartime full employment and black migration from the low-wage South. But the FEPC was actually central to this progress. According to one scholar, about half of the progress in compressing racial wage differentials in this period was an effect of FEPC interventions.
What’s more, black workers eagerly seized on the FEPC as a weapon to be used in their struggles for equal employment. In industries from West Coast shipbuilding to Philadelphia public transit, black workers used FEPC hearings to publicize their grievances and as hubs for organizing their own actions against both employers and unions with discriminatory practices.
Precisely because the FEPC was so effective, it faced tremendous opposition during its entire existence. After the war, the fight to make the FEPC permanent failed in the face of conservative countermobilization. But in its brief life, it showed, more than any legislation since Reconstruction, what real policy dedicated to advancing racial equality would look like.
When Alf Landon raised the discriminatory impact of some New Deal programs in 1936, he was trying to clip the wings of the egalitarian movement in the United States. Today, when centrist Democrats like Clyburn raise these same points, they are trying to accomplish something similar. Rather than a transformative presidency that raises people’s expectations for what the government can do to them, Clyburn encourages Biden to emulate Harry Truman, a politician who failed in his domestic agenda while pursuing a disastrous foreign policy of imperialist bellicosity.
Opposing the powerful forces pulling Biden’s administration in a similar direction will require a vision of what egalitarian policy can look like, and the New Deal remains a powerful source for such a vision.