White Supremacy and Segregation Under FDR’s New Deal: Two Articles

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs the Wagner Act in 1935

(reprinted from The Organizer Weekly Newsletter No. 3)

White Supremacy and Segregation Under FDR’s New Deal


The New Deal began in 1933, initially as a series of emergency laws to stabilize an economy shattered by the Great Depression. Capitalism had literally stopped working, and mass starvation and revolution were real possibilities. Millions of workers were unemployed or employed in awful conditions; the rural economy lay in tatters. The year after the New Deal began citywide general strikes shut down San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo.

Although some big capitalists hated the New Deal, the majority understood Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s goals and supported his project, since a fundamental aim of the New Deal was to make businesses profitable again. The southern establishment joined the New Deal coalition in order to maintain their power rooted in segregation — FDR’s deal with the devil.

Key New Deal programs failed Black Americans. The WPA and CCC could have been part of a segregation-busting project, but instead segregation was bolstered, as Blacks were relegated to separate work camps across the country, bringing Jim Crow to the North. The best jobs went to whites and out of the 10,000 WPA supervisors hired in the south, only 11 were Black.

This was one of the many concessions FDR made to the racist southern Democrats in his coalition, which bled over to the war mobilization where whites and Blacks served in segregated units. The backwardness of the South was forced upon the rest of the country in the New Deal era, promoting a Jim Crow that exacerbated existing racial tensions in Northern cities instead of mitigating them.

When workers of various ethnicities migrated across the United States to find work in war industries— because they were still unemployed after the height of New Deal programs— it was the feds who mandated segregated housing for war industry workers, where Blacks regularly received lower-quality housing than whites.

FDR also used the Federal Housing Administration as a racist weapon whose fallout still affects us today: An economic ladder was given for a generation of European-Americans that was denied to the majority of Black Americans. Whites were given mortgages in suburbs and Blacks were denied loans where they lived, a process now called “redlining.” The wealth built by home ownership is the primary reason today that white families have a median income 16 times higher than Blacks.

Blacks were instead pushed into public housing— itself initially restricted to “whites only” (either explicitly in the South or through income requirements in the North). After public housing was expanded and integrated, many whites bought homes while maintenance funds were slashed for public housing, creating the modern “projects” we know today. The intentional failure of public housing is well told in the documentary Pruitt–Igoe Myth.

FDR gave Southern segregationists a long leash administering federal New Deal funds, enabling them to strengthen their patronage networks, political power and discriminatory practices imbedded in Jim Crow.

This Southern autonomy allowed landowners to receive federal subsidies meant to help tenant farmers, but instead the tenants were kicked off the land and the money kept by the landowners, exacerbating the rural crisis that made Blacks economic refugees as they migrated to urban areas.

Inequality widened further when segregationists convinced the federal government to not extend key labor protections— such as minimum wages, maximum hours and Social Security— in the industries where the majority of Blacks worked, such as agriculture and domestic workers.

The racism promoted in the New Deal is well explored in the book “When Affirmative Action Was White” and the newer “The Color of Law.”

FDR’s most obvious racist act was jailing Japanese Americans in concentration camps, a policy that he and others knew was not meant to keep Americans safe, but to scapegoat sections of the American public to exacerbate racist tensions that helped facilitate war mobilizations.

During the New Deal there was already a Civil Rights movement that FDR refused to promote; he was even silent over a proposed anti-lynching law that couldn’t pass his “progressive” Congress. FDR’s power and the New Deal’s popularity could have easily smashed segregation, but Roosevelt did not want transformative change, he relied on existing power dynamics and the existing State superstructure, adjusting his proposals to the more Conservative Senate. By wanting to avoid clashes with powerful sections of the establishment, he ensured that his project would be limited by them.

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Shamus Cooke is a member of the Portland branch of Democratic Socialists of America. He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com. This article has been excerpted from a much-longer piece that was published on CounterPunch.org on May 8, 2019.

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Wagner Act 3

FDR’s Alliance with White Supremacist Southern Democrats Promoted Divisions Among Workers


Today, millions of home-care, domestic, and agricultural workers are excluded from labor protections that other workers receive. This division among workers has allowed the bosses to attack all laborers.

The basis of the division stems from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal alliance with the white supremacist Southern Democrats, who demanded the concession of the exclusion of protections for industries where the majority of Blacks in the South worked. The exclusion of protections in those industries was incorporated throughout the United States, in exchange for the Southern Democrats support for the 1935 Wagner Act.

Today this division of laborers is often utilized as a hammer on labor, as when the U.S. Supreme Court Janus ruling was pushed through after the Harris vs. Quinn ruling on excluded home-care workers prepared its way.

Labor standards for all are under attack, and many of the attacks start with these Wagner excluded workers. Labor and safety standards are under an all -out assault as capitalists seek to make labor disposable. Amending the Wagner Act to unite and include all workers is urgent to remove this structural legacy of racist bigotry that reaches into our time.

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