One of the weirder developments in contemporary political discourse on the left is the vogue for denouncing pretty much every significant piece of progressive legislation of the last 100 years because of the continuing existence of racial disparities. The New Deal, shockingly, has been no exception to this trend.
But Adolph Reed Jr to the rescue! Here's his trenchant riposte to this meme, backed up with plenty of data.
"In recent decades, “racial disparity” has become the central framework for discussing inequities affecting African Americans in the United States. In this usage, disparity refers to the disproportionate statistical representation of some categorically defined populations on average in the distribution of undesirable things—unemployment, low wages, infant mortality, poor education, incarceration, etc. And by corollary logic, such social groupings are also found to be statistically underrepresented in desirable things—wealth, income, educational attainment, etc.
The most common categorical markers here have to do, not surprisingly, with race and gender—though they aren’t the only domains of disparity; but even so, these foundational discriminations often form the template for it. Identifying and parsing disparities have become the default setting of the language of social justice in the United States....
People who embrace anti-racist politics now regularly denounce the New Deal as a model for universalist social and economic reform on the grounds that many of its signature programs discriminated against African Americans. Some of these detractors simply dismiss the New Deal as racist and have gone further to argue that all universal programs—i.e., initiatives that are officially designed to benefit everyone—are racist and will not help black Americans. They argue instead that only government and market interventions targeted solely to African Americans should count as benefits for black people.
It is certainly true that black Americans received less than whites on the average from many New Deal programs, but it’s not true that they didn’t receive benefits. Often, critics who dismiss the New Deal as racist focus on racial disparity—the fact that in many programs, smaller overall percentages of African Americans benefited than the percentages of whites, or that African Americans received lower benefits on average—and ignore the degree to which African Americans actually did benefit....
The Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of the most important New Deal programs for working people, provided jobs for millions of Americans doing socially useful work between 1935 and 1939, when its operations were transferred to the Federal Works Agency. In 1935, the WPA employed roughly 350,000 African Americans a year—a figure that represented about 15 percent of the agency’s total workforce. Even though blacks made up a still greater percentage of those in need of work, black participation in WPA programs was nonetheless 50 percent greater than the African American percentage of the total U.S. population."
Reed goes on to document the relevant data for other New Deal programs, including the establishment of Social Security, frequent target of those keen to denounce the New Deal as racist.
"[W]hites were 74 percent of all the domestic and agricultural workers excluded from Social Security at its outset. That is, three white workers were excluded for every nonwhite worker—a distribution suggesting that the point of the exclusions was not simply to suppress African Americans. Several categories of workers that were very predominantly white—for example, seamen in the merchant marine, self-employed individuals, workers in the nonprofit sector, professionals—also were excluded from coverage. Altogether, three-fourths of the 20 million American workers who were excluded from early Social Security coverage were white.
Different groups of workers were excluded from coverage under the old-age social insurance provision in the 1935 Social Security Act for different reasons, in some cases simply because of the administrative difficulties anticipated in collecting payroll taxes. Race certainly could have been one factor that influenced decisions about coverage, but it was not the definitive basis for exclusion or inclusion. That is to say, African Americans who worked in job categories included in coverage were covered; whites who worked in categories that were not covered were excluded. Thus, while nearly two-thirds of African American workers were in excluded categories, nearly a third were covered. In 1940, the first year of old-age payouts, around two million African Americans were eligible for, and received, benefits.
This more complex view of the New Deal’s significance for African Americans helps us to understand why black people supported both it and the Roosevelt administration so enthusiastically. It also is crucial to understanding the roots of the post-World War II black political insurgency in both North and South. And, as I shall demonstrate in subsequent columns, which will examine the racial disparities in housing and labor markets, the New Deal’s legacy can shine an invaluable light on the intellectual and political limitations of a perspective that reduces African American concerns to a simple binary axis of racism and anti-racism as the most consequential categories of analysis."
Great stuff. I look forward to his future columns.