The New Deal’s Legacy of African American Progress

There is an uncertainty of historians and authors on the issue of African American progress during the New Deal era. Like John Kirby’s “Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era,” many writers have approached this topic with the idea that while progress was made, the system used to make that progress was most certainly flawed. I do not think this goes far enough to critique the way in which the federal government went about solving the problems of the Depression and of American social trends in general. I argue that because of the nature of the New Deal system and those involved in its implementation, progress was hindered at the expense of saving face politically with sectional interests and ensuring the viability of New Deal programs. Furthermore, post-New Deal America reverted to a lot of its old forms of de facto discrimination in order to keep control over African Americans, thereby negating whatever small strides were made.

In the 1920s, going into the Great Depression, the context for racial equality was unfavorable. The predominance of maintaining the status quo, along with white affluence and the isolationism that was in response to the First World War, meant that anyone who was not white or Protestant was looked upon with some suspicion. African American groups such as the NAACP and the National Urban League were not in a strong position to bargain with businesses and governments to help the economically disenfranchised, because their support came from white philanthropists and businessmen themselves, with vested interests in keeping African Americans at a distance. They were also poorly organized and locally connected, meaning that the common problems of the African American in 1920s America were never to be addressed.

The potential turning point for African Americans was the Great Depression. White liberals and African Americans saw this economic disaster as the breaking down of any pretense of white supremacy, allowing for the ideas of equality and commonality amongst black and whites. The real power, however, lie in the hands of white liberals, who were pragmatic about the race issue. They felt that the solution to the problems of African Americans was infrastructure. Education, agriculture, and economics were the problems as liberals saw it, and simply revamping the structure of these three things at the federal level would be adequate to change the long term problems African Americans endured.

What the white liberal and African American elites missed was the deep seeded nature of race discrimination in the United States. Simply dealing with economics and education would only be curing peripheral problems for African Americans. Whites all over the nation had “unscientific thoughts” on the place of African Americans within society and were unwilling to displace themselves to help those who would take their jobs and their place in society if equality were to be realized. The core of the problem was that the federal government gave in to state and local governments who wanted to maintain race discrimination in their policies. These smaller governments maintained the tradition of discrimination within their borders.

The roadblocks to progress were threefold: The framework was nearly a means, not an end, to racial equality; Southern whites who were sympathetic to African Americans were the “quiet” minority, not wanting to rock the boat amongst their peers; and the fear of lower class militancy was too much for any substantial change to be made. Given the choice of third party politics or reforming within the system, the only realistic choice for African Americans was to work within the system, which promised very minor change in exchange for their dependency on party politics and their votes. This was the sad state of affairs for African Americans during the New Deal.

The New Deal legacy’s of progress for African Americans is a misnomer. Kirby and many other writers on this topic have said that the progress made was in simply addressing the problems of African Americans within the terms of reform in government. This does not do justice to the potential that was wasted by the New Deal. By addressing racial issues and then leaving them on the table, the Roosevelt administration showed its true colors and paved the way for further indifference by government in dealing with racial issues. Instead of using the economic and educational programs of the New Deal for recovery and creating a new identity, the Roosevelt administration allowed the status quo of racial discrimination to be maintained and ensured for African Americans several decades of fighting for their place in American society.

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