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Social Science History 26.1 (2002) 139-177

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Racial Considerations and Social Policy in the 1930s
Economic Change and Political Opportunities

John Brueggemann


Social policy that emerged from the New Deal era continues to shape race relations and politics today. Since the 1930s, scholars have debated the net effect of the New Deal on racial inequality. On the one hand, the social policies of the 1930s are viewed as a great step toward a racially inclusive society (Myrdal 1944; Wolters 1975; Sitkoff 1978, 1985; Ezell 1975; Patterson 1986; Weiss 1983). In contrast to previous eras and political regimes, Roosevelt's New Deal reflected a qualitatively different sense of government's responsibility toward [End Page 139] its citizens, including African Americans. Alternatively, New Deal era social policy is considered a crucial component in the structure of American racial stratification (Lewis 1982; Rose 1993; Quadagno 1994; Valocchi 1994; Brown 1999). The legislative record of the New Deal was consistently racialized and discriminatory. Welfare policy, in particular, actively excluded and subjugated blacks. These contrasting portrayals reflect the ambiguity of the New Deal legacy of race relations. In this historical analysis I am concerned with how and why race relations—both as cause and effect—figured into New Deal–era politics in the way they did.

During the 1930s, most Americans were opposed to extreme manifestations of fascism, but few felt urgent about the possibilities of serious progressive social change. In the midst of such ambivalence, the enduring racism of the public writ large and the rigidity of influential southern congressmen prohibited any chance of substantive civil rights legislation. So the question is how any government provisions were established that served the interests of African Americans. In particular, what led to the federal government's unprecedented generosity and intentionality in terms of aiding blacks, especially the persistently large numbers residing in the South?

Four related theoretical factors account for the extraordinary and ambivalent legacy of public policy of this period:

1. The process of industrialization occurred in a deeply racialized society.
2. The economic crisis of the 1930s altered the structure of political opportunities for advocates of civil rights and the interests of black Americans in general.
3. The economic position of black Americans changed as a result of these developments.
4. The economic differentiation in the South transformed several important political alliances into a subgroup within the Roosevelt coalition that directly affected the civil rights cause in general and relief for blacks in particular.

First and foremost, the general process of industrialization generated a kind of kinetic energy that fostered substantial and widespread social change (Wilson 1978). The decline of the southern sharecropping/tenant farming economy concomitant with the rise of urban industry (particularly in the North, but also in the South) transformed the demographic composition and political relationships of both regions (Tindall 1967; Lieberson 1980; Kirby 1983). [End Page 140] This process altered the character, competitiveness, and value of African Americans as labor, which altered their role and influence in politics (Wilson 1978; McAdam 1982).

The agricultural system of the rural South, however, contributed to an ongoing distinctive political legacy there and on the national scene. Southern politicians involved in federal government, especially those from rural districts, maintained southern racial mores. Because of the one-party system in the South, southern congressmen rendered inordinate influence in the legislature (Quadagno 1985). However, industrialization within the South fostered a process of urban differentiation from rural areas. This structural development, which was already under way when the depression began, would subsequently lead to differing interests among southern legislators.

Another important and more specific economic factor, the Great Depression, jarred the nation and transformed its political terrain. The needs and entitlements of labor were redefined. As the new industrialized working class was growing self-conscious, it established important links to government and imposed its interests into national political discourse (Brody 1993; Griffin et al. 1986; Goldfield 1989, 1997). This occurred just as large numbers of African Americans were joining that class (see Brown and Brueggemann 1997; Brueggemann and Boswell 1998). Although...


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