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The Walter White Project

Randy Stakeman, Jackson Stakeman, Authors

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The NAACP and the New Deal

As Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration instituted programs aimed at alleviating the economic plight of the Great Depression, Walter White and the NAACP worked to see that African Americans were included in the new programs and that they were administered without racism. As historian Patricia Sullivan wrote:

The unprecedented expansion of federal power, the inclusive rhetoric of the Roosevelt administration, the enactment of labor rights legislation and growth of the industrial labor movement, and the emergence of black-white coalitions on the Left all helped to challenge and disrupt the foundations of the nation's racial divide....The hope released by this fusion of change and political activity sought expression in a society where racial segregation and discrimination was the norm and close to 80 percent of black Americans lived under a racial caste system. [Source note]

Despite this "hope" and Walter White's best lobbying efforts the NAACP was notably unsuccessful in having an impact on the New Deal. Liberal attempts to inject any anti-discrimination language into bills were blocked by Southern senators and congressmen who resisted any change to the racial status quo. FDR's need for southern support in many of his policies led to his silence on racial issues.  As scholars have written:

In turn, President Roosevelt and congressional leaders tailored New Deal legislation to southern preferences. They reached an implicit modus vivendi: southern civil society would remain intact and southern representatives would support the key elements of the administration's program. There would be no attempt to build a mass biracial base in the South; nor would even the most heinous aspects of regional repression, such as lynching, be brought under the rule of law. Further, sponsors fashioned key bills to avoid disturbing the region's racial civilization by employing two main policy instruments: the exclusion of agricultural and domestic labor, the principal occupational categories of blacks, from legislation, including the National Recovery Act, the Wagner Act, Social Security, and the Fair Labor Standards Act; and decentralized administration. [Source Note]

Indeed FDR's advisers resented White and the NAACP for constantly bring up race. Even a close friendship between Walter White and Eleanor Roosevelt and the access to the president it created, was not enough to overcome the president's political fears.

A new federal anti-lynching bill, the Costigan-Wagner Bill, died in committee when FDR, who said he privately agreed with the bill, did not make any public attempts to secure its passage. When labor rights legislation was passed it did not have the non-discriminatory provisions that White and the NAACP wanted.  Most importantly when the Social Security Act was passed it excluded domestic workers.  This alone excluded an estimated two thirds of black workers from its benefits. [Source Note]

As historian Mary Poole believes this exclusion wasn't just because of southern congressmen but

because policymakers shared an interest in protecting the political and economic value of whiteness...[the people who] wielded the greatest influence on these developments were not southerners in Congress, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt's own people.  They were the liberal reformers... who genuinely sought to build a fairer and better world...but whose vision was steeped in racial privilege. [Source Note]

This exclusion had two far ranging effects.  It channeled most African Americans away from the programs created for workers and into public assistance if at all. In a society that assigns economic and social value to all things considered "white' and "self made" it assigned a stigma to those who received public assistance.  They had failed as individuals and are a burden on society.  Even though later changes in the 1960's would change some aspects of this discrimination the stigma attached continues to this day in the "American cultural imagination." Secondly generations of African American families and communities "lost out on the baseline of economic security...offered to covered workers." [Source note]
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