Wednesday, February 10, 2016

On Coates and Roosevelt

In preparation for my last post, I reread Ta-Nehisi Coates’ excellent essay “The Case for Reparations.” For the most part, it holds up. I have only one minor quibble with Coates’ essay but even this ultimately justifies him. Facts are frequently double-edged swords.

I think that Ta-Nehisi Coates was a tad harsh on the New Deal. Granted, the most important New Deal programs like Social Security and the Federal Housing Authority did indeed exclude Africa Americas. And the net effect dramatically widened the wealth gap between blacks and whites. There is no denying that and, at the end of the day, that is all that actually matters. But a casual reader might get the idea that preserving and strengthening white supremacy was the goal of these programs.

Not quite. Craven compromises were made out of weakness rather than malevolence or indifference. Such concessions are familiar examples of the Southern plantocracy holding the whole country hostage – something they had done since threatening to scuttle the Declaration of Independence. (There is actually a musical about that.) The New Deal era was no different. As Harvard Sitkoff admitted in A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The Depression Decade, the Roosevelt administration initially feared that aiding African Americans in any way would derail other legislation. "Even as minor a matter as the invitation of a Negro to the Senate restaurant in 1934 resulted in Southern Democrats howling their rage and threatening to cut off appropriations."(1)

And this may very well be what Ta-Nehisi Coates means when he says that America was built on white supremacy - only that our country has been continuously structured to advantage whites and keep blacks vulnerable in various ways right up until the present day. If so, I cannot possibly argue with that. I may be misreading him on the New Deal.

But, as the title of Harvard Sitkoff’s book suggests, things started to change during the New Deal. Not all the credit goes to the Roosevelts or the New Deal. The Harlem Renaissance had inspired African Americans to take pride in their identity and assert their rights. (And, although Sitkoff is an integrationist, he has praise for Marcus Garvey on this score.) Black labor leaders were flexing their muscles. And unquestionably some credit goes to communists who were agitating on both class and race issues. More whites in the union movement began to grasp how racism is used to divide and conquer the working poor. Even conventional liberals noticed the Nazis’ brutal racism and asked how the Klan was any different. The logic of the New Deal coalition's "forgotten man" rhetoric pulled toward civil rights even though it prioritized economic recovery and, later, getting Hitler. 

Within the Roosevelt administration, there were different opinions on this issue. Some were wary of offending Congress, while others favored pushing the envelope within the executive’s prevue. Among the later was Harry Hopkins, head of the Works Progress Administration, and Francis Perkins, Secretary of Labor. Both were once social workers in New York and sympathetic to the plight of Blacks. But perhaps the most powerful was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She needed schooling but proved an apt pupil. As Sitkoff wrote of Eleanor's education:

Her friendship with Walter White of the NAACP and Mary McLeod Bethune, President of the National Council of Negro Women, began to resemble a crash course on the struggle of blacks against oppression. ... Like other liberals who initially viewed the race problem as essentially economic, to be solved by New Deal anti-poverty measures, Mrs. Roosevelt only gradually came to the realization that such specific matters as discrimination, lynching, and disfranchisement had to be faced directly.(2)
That last sentence pretty much sums up Ta-Nehisi Coates' critique of Bernie Sanders' answer on the question of reparations for slavery. Of course, I should add that Sanders has embraced the Black Lives Matters movement and believes that African Americans are owed an official apology for slavery. But with regard to the question of black poverty, Sanders program is indeed only class-based. Eleanor Roosevelt became a vocal advocate for a federal anti-lynching law, much to the chagrin of many White House staffers. And I have no doubt that Bernie Sanders is an equally quick study. But, yeah, this has often been a blind spot with socialists and liberals alike. 

It is also important to note that blacks benefited from some New Deal programs. This was when blacks began to switch their allegiance to the Democratic Party – a process completed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Before, blacks had loyally supported the “Party of Lincoln.” This was not just a byproduct of the second northward black migration during WWII. (The first was during WWI.) The efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins, and Francis Perkins got some results. Of course, because these federal programs were locally administered, the gains were severely limited in the south; but they were noticeably effective in the north where blacks were migrating. 

But, again, evidence that supports this narrative also supports Coates. As Sitkoff wrote of the racist and timid climate in then Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace's department:
Henry Wallace, according to to civil rights spokesmen, especially feared antagonizing Southerners on the race issue. No other department was as controlled by white supremacists both in the bureaucracy and in Congress as was the Department of Agriculture. It had the smallest percentage of black employees and was the last to appoint a Negro adviser. "You didn't dare take a Negro to lunch at Agriculture," recalled Dr. Will Alexander, one of the few supporters of civil rights working on the New Deal farm programs. Wallace not only ducked action on Negro rights but complained to Alexander: "Will, don't you think the New Deal is undertaking to do too much for Negroes[?]"(3) 
This is a bit embarrassing for progressives because Wallace was their icon. Roosevelt later made him his Vice President (1941-1945), but then replaced him with Harry Truman - to the great ire of progressives. Truman and Wallace became rivals; and in 1948, Wallace ran as the Progressive Party's candidate for President thereby threatening Truman chances. However, by this time, Wallace had evolved a lot on civil rights becoming a stronger supporter than Truman, who desegregated the armed forces. The point being is that progressives haven't always been awesome. As I wrote before, the left's record is mixed - better than the liberal record to be sure, and far better than the conservative one, but it still has plenty of blemishes. 

There is a telling incident that illustrates both Franklin D. Roosevelt’s timorousness and the admittedly limited – but still significant – beneficial impact of the New Deal on blacks. In 1935, Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge, then one of the biggest bigots in politics, wrote a letter to Roosevelt complaining that work relief projects paid too much. The upshot was local cotton barons could not get field hands for the starvation wages that satisfied tradition. Roosevelt wrote a tart response, but never mailed it. Instead, he then delegated the task of replying to Harry Hopkins. Hopkins wrote Talmadge that his favored wage rate left people "under-fed, sick, and ragged, and their children out of school for lack of food, clothes and school books."(4) Race was not specifically mentioned in either Roosevelt's or Hopkin's response. It was understood. But just in case it was not clear to the reader, the 1957 book this bit comes from introduced it with this opening sentence: "Talmadge was one of the most vociferous white-supremacy Southerners of the era." Hopkin's letter was still critical in tone, but it significantly did not come from the president.

Let’s not equivocate: This was not a heroic moment for Roosevelt. And Coates’ disappointment with the New Deal generally is unquestionably justified. If it seems like an example of “same old/same old,” that is because that is exactly what it was – a story that is quite literally as old as the republic itself. However, nor is this evidence that Roosevelt approved the perpetuation or strengthening of white supremacy. It is certainly disappointing, but not evidence of intent or desire. Yes, this is a defense of FDR, but it is hardly a rousing or inspiring one. And, hey, I can make it even worse by pointing out Roosevelt's internment of Japanese-Americans, which was active rather than passive and – as Coates correctly points out – an instance where America has actually has made payments to an injured ethnicity.

But like I said, this is a quibble. At the end of the day, Ta-Nehisi Coates is right about reparations. What actually matters is that, whatever Franklin D. Roosevelt’s intentions, much of the New Deal was a massive whites-only giveaway which unquestionably widened the wealth gap between whites and blacks. And its effects are felt to this day. Conservatives cannot deny that and complain about the inheritance tax. And the subsequent G.I. Bill – arguably the first federal affirmative action program actually implemented – was also whites-only. Indeed, contrary to the absurd conservative fantasy that Martin Luther King would have opposed affirmative action, he not only helped pioneer it, he also likened it to the G.I. Bill. And, as Coates notes, blacks trying to buy homes were denied legitimate credit sources and thereby herded into predatory scams – and variants persist to the present day. Government collusion was always a part of this. The grievances so go far beyond slavery. If you doubt me, read his essay already.

I may be wrong, but my reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates is not that he is denying the contributions of socialist solutions insomuch as saying that there is another important, studiously ignored piece to the puzzle. Socialism solves a lot, but it doesn’t solve everything.

So let's emulate 
Eleanor Roosevelt and recognize that.


(1) Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The Depression Decade (Oxford University Press, 1978), 45.

(2) Ibid., 60.

(3) Ibid., 44.

(4) Franklin D. Roosevelt, The Roosevelt Reader: Selected Speeches, Messages, Press Conferences, and Letters of Franklin D. Roosevelt, ed. Basil Rauch (New York: Rinehart & Co., 1957), 137.

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