“FDR’s Policies Laid the Foundations for Generations of Hardship” for Black Americans

(p. A13) Just past the midway point of “Black Americans, Civil Rights, and the Roosevelts”—a powerful and powerfully disturbing exhibition at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum—you can pick up a headset and listen to parts of a secretly recorded White House meeting on Sept. 27, 1940 (a transcript is also provided).

. . .

. . ., FDR nonchalantly settles into condescension and caricature. He emphasizes his appreciation of black servicemen, recalling “my colored messenger in the Navy Department”: “I gave him to Louis Howe, who was terribly fond of him.” And he promises to support opportunities for Negroes. In the Navy, he suggests, they could play in bands: “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a colored band on some of these ships, because they’re darn good at it.”

It is a shock to come upon these words. They even raise a question of just how much the administration’s sluggishness in dealing with racial issues was due to the power of Southern Democrats.

. . .

. . . the exhibition argues . . . that FDR’s policies laid the foundations for generations of hardship. The Social Security Act of 1935, for example, is criticized for not including “farm and domestic workers, who were disproportionately Black. This kept nearly two-thirds of Black workers out of the program”—in part, the text suggests, because of Southern Democrats’ racist influence. The exhibition also argues that the “redlining” of neighborhoods by Roosevelt’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, which mapped out areas with the highest probability of mortgage defaults, harmed the very neighborhoods where most blacks lived, with an effect lasting generations.

Racism, of course, should not be dismissed as a factor, but these are complicated issues, and much literature challenges any sweeping assertions. Did racism play an important role in excluding farm workers and domestics from Social Security, as the exhibition ends up suggesting? A 2010 Social Security Administration paper argues otherwise, noting that 74% of all excluded workers in those categories were white. Moreover, the act also excluded the self-employed, crews of ships, and employees of nonprofit religious and educational institutions. A 1997 paper in Political Science Quarterly argued that such initial exclusions were likely due to difficulties in how taxes and payrolls were handled, adding too many challenges to the administration of a new social program. Studies of redlining have also led to questions about its racial origins and effects. Redlined areas housed large proportions of a city’s black residents, but about three-quarters of the inhabitants were white. And as a 2021 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests, the maps were reflections of economic conditions, not racial demarcations, and “had little effect” on the distribution of federal mortgage activity.

For the full exhibition review, see:

Edward Rothstein. “Black Americans and the New Deal.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the exhibition review has the date August 23, 2023, and has the title “Black Americans, Civil Rights, and the Roosevelts’ Review: A New Look at the New Deal Era.”)

The 2021 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) paper mentioned above was published online in 2022 (in advance of print publication):

Fishback, Price, Jonathan Rose, Ken Snowden, and Thomas Storrs. “New Evidence on Redlining by Federal Housing Programs in the 1930s.” Journal of Urban Economics (online on May 11, 2022).

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