1930s: Franklin Roosevelt ‘s New Deal prohibited hiring discrimination in the Public Works Administration and the defense industry. And, as the Founding Fathers had done in 1776, it united northern liberals and southern conservatives. However, like them, Roosevelt had to maintain silence on the question of race, fearing that his coalition would disintegrate. Southern politicians, who defeated over 200 anti-lynching bills, supported Social Security only if it excluded agricultural laborers and domestic servants. This compromise deliberately kept some 65% of blacks outside of the protections of the welfare state, including minimum wages. In certain states, that number approached 80%.
In a decade when even large numbers of whites faced starvation, people of color received far less assistance from government than did white people. Far more white farmers than black were able to keep their farms. In addition, Black industrial workers in the North eventually discovered that Social Security itself was unfair, because it used money they contributed to pay benefits disproportionately to whites, who lived longer than most blacks. Ira Katznelson writes, “…each of the old age, social assistance, and unemployment provisions advanced by the Social Security Act was shaped to racist contours.” His book When Affirmative Action Was White is an excellent book-length treatment of this topic. For much of the twentieth century,
The federal government, though seemingly race-neutral, functioned as a commanding instrument of white privilege…The Democratic Party that fashioned and superintended the New Deal and Fair Deal combined two different political systems: one that was incorporating new groups and voters, who had arrived from overseas or had migrated from the South; the other still an authoritarian one-party system, still beholden to racial separation.
Since Southern politicians were privileged to not have to compete in a two-party system, their seniority was exaggerated. They were able to secure a disproportionate number of committee chairmanships that gave them special gatekeeping powers.
They used three mechanisms. First, whenever the nature of the legislation permitted, they sought to leave out as many African Americans as they could…Second, they successfully insisted that the administration of these and other laws, including assistance to the poor and support for veterans, be placed in the hands of local officials who were deeply hostile to black aspirations. Third, they prevented Congress from attaching any sort of anti-discrimination provisions to aide an array of social welfare programs such as community health services, school lunches, and hospital construction grants…
Since blacks were now counted as full citizens in the census, their large presence combined with their frequent inability to vote allowed white citizens to gain representation in higher proportions than their population in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, these seventeen racially segregated states were able to veto any legislation they did not like.
When this power was deployed, as it was in matters of relief and social insurance, it seriously widened the racial gap. Federal social welfare policy operated, in short, not just as an instrument of racial discrimination but as a perverse formula for affirmative action.
Blacks who had migrated northward to escape the repression and take advantage of job prospects often found themselves victimized by the “last hired, first fired” principle. For more, read here.
And they were funneled into segregated housing, caused not only by racist landlords or paranoid communities, but also by redlining practices specifically encouraged by the federal government. The National Housing Act of 1934 established the Federal Housing Administration and the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, which created “residential security maps” for several cities to determine the safety of real estate investments in selected areas. Jamelle Bouie writes:
Existing black neighborhoods were lined as unsafe, and thus ineligible for financing. For prospective property owners, this was terrible: Absent cash on hand, there was no way to afford a home or a business in your area. What’s more, blacks were all but barred from entering white neighborhoods, if not by restrictive racial covenants (which forbid property sales to African Americans and other minorities) then by violence and intimidation. In Chicago, for instance, anti-black riots were a regular part of public life. Here’s Arnold Hirsch, author of Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940–1960:
“On July 28, 1957, a crowd of 6,000 to 7,000 whites attacked 100 black picnickers who occupied a portion of the park that had previously been “reserved” for whites. Though blacks had used the park in the past, they were customarily restricted to certain portions of it. More than 500 police were needed to calm the area after two days of disturbances. On the first day alone at least forty-seven persons were injured and sixty to seventy cars stoned. Rioters spilled out of the park, attacked police officers attempting arrests, and, eventually, placed the entire area between the nearby Trumbull Park Homes and Calumet Park in turmoil. Police squadrons had to form a “flying wedge” to break through the crowd to rescue blacks besieged in the park.” In the late 1940s, he writes, there was “one racially motivated bombing or arson” every twenty days.
In 1937 the government began to build public housing in 1937, but It was actually designed primarily for working-class white families. Housing built for black people was segregated. In large cities like Chicago and Detroit, public housing became a black program – those horrible concrete high rises that came to be called “the projects” – and the FHA created a different program for whites, which was a single-family suburban program. Terrel Starr writes:
The Federal Housing Administration financed the construction of new single-family homes in suburban developments (and government money plotted and paved the roads to get there). The FHA and the Veteran’s Administration also guaranteed cheap mortgages for the families who moved there, making this new kind of owner-occupied housing often just as affordable as rents had been in public housing projects in the city. Like many of those original projects, though, the new homes were explicitly unavailable to blacks. The FHA required developers to use restrictive covenants barring blacks, and it denied black families the mortgages that allowed working-class whites to leave public housing.
As the white “barely poor” moved out — and as the strict criteria for who could live in public housing faded — the median incomes of the families there began to fall. In 1950, the median household in public housing earned about 57% of the national median income. That number fell to 41% by 1960, then 29% by 1970. By the 1990s, the median family in public housing made only about 17% what the median family in America made.
Relatively speaking, that means public-housing residents by the 1990s were about three times as poor as they had been in the 1950s.
World War Two: Participation in imperial wars is a dubious and difficult moral question. Should we be proud that women can now serve in combat? But it is true that the military – and, eventually, an integrated military – has long offered opportunities for working class Americans to enter the middle class. Kaznelson, however, insists that blacks were inducted at much lower rates than whites, received discriminatory treatment (including health care and training for higher status positions), and served in legally segregated units. He concludes:
…for most African American individuals, and certainly for the group as a whole, war service ended with a wider gap between whites and blacks, as white access to training and occupational advancement moved ahead at a much more vigorous rate.
In America, the fear and uncertainty of wartime always contributes to increased racial tension, and this period was no exception. Just as during the previous war, there were dozens of race riots, almost all of them perpetrated by whites, that primarily destroyed minority lives and property, such as the Zoot Suit riots of 1943.
Post-World War Two: The G.I. Bill created the American middle class, but almost exclusively for whites. First of all, far lower percentages of blacks than whites had been allowed to serve, and thus to qualify for its benefits. Secondly, writes Kaznelson, Southern politicians made sure that “it was deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow,” and that it placed nearly impassible boundaries in front of black veterans. Because implementation, including unemployment insurance, loans and funding for college-level education, was left to all-white local officials, “the playing field was never level.” Only one in twelve job training programs in the South admitted blacks, while the white working class received the training that opened further opportunities.
The G.I. Bill financed 90% of the 13 million houses constructed in the 1950s. However, those same Southern politicians made sure that 98% of those homes went to whites, even when home construction was in the North. Of 350,000 federally subsidized homes built in Northern California between 1946 and 1960, fewer than 100 went to blacks, as did none of the 82,000 homes built in Levittown, New York. People of color remained locked in the inner cities, their dwellings and businesses often torn down to make room for the interstates that would shuttle whites to the suburbs where only they could live.
This was the period when Southern Democratic congressman, many of whom had supported New Deal programs that improved labor rights, began to shift their allegiance to anti-union Republicans, eventually reversing the Democratic hold on the South. In the Southwest, Mexicans and Mexican Americans were enduring the effects of the Bracero Program and its aftermath, which I write about here.
When African Americans relocated to friendlier areas, they still had to confront the reality of housing covenants. After the war, it was still common practice for developers and realtors – even in the liberal San Francisco Bay area – to bar non-whites from moving into their newly built homes, and to have such covenants enforced by law. Although they are no longer legally binding, as recently as 2019, researchers found over 20,000 properties in the Seattle area with racial covenants in their deeds.