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Race in FDR's New Deal

Strained Coalitions

The New Deal coalition contained within its ranks both large numbers of African Americans and a huge constituency of racially conservative Southern whites. The racial tension inherent in such a political alignment is obvious; FDR usually tried to hold his coalition together by providing benefits for all while sidestepping racial controversy. He wasn't always successful, and the vexed issue of race in America limited the potential of the New Deal to truly transform our society.

Roosevelt was no racist (and his wife Eleanor was an early hero of the civil rights movement [source]) but the President knew he needed the support of Southern Democrats to pass his legislation and he wasn't willing to risk his program for the sake of racial justice.

It's terrible, but that was the reality of politics at the time.

"I Just Can't Take that Risk"

The harsh logic of Roosevelt's racial stance was expressed most clearly in 1938, when liberal congressmen attempted to pass federal anti-lynching legislation to halt the most horrific type of anti-black terrorism. (Several thousand black people were killed by lynching in the United States between the 1880s and 1960s.) Southern Senators angrily filibustered, and FDR defied black leaders and his own wife by refusing to throw his support behind the measure.

Just to reiterate here: there were people—like, actual humans beings—who thought hanging black people was okay.

"I did not choose the tools with which I must work," FDR explained. "Had I been permitted to choose them, I would have selected quite different ones. But I've got to get legislation passed by Congress to save America. The Southerners [...] occupy strategic places on most of the Senate and House committees. If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can't take that risk."18

Roosevelt's need to accommodate Southern racists often complicated the implementation of his programs. Distribution of relief in the South, for example, slowed to a trickle because Southern relief administrators didn't want to distribute money to black people. One Georgia relief agent told Roosevelt's emissary Lorena Hickok that "any N----- who gets over $8 a week is a spoiled N-----, that's all... The Negroes regard the President as the Messiah, and they think that [...] they'll all be getting $12 a week for the rest of their lives."19 Domestic workers and agricultural laborers—the leading employment sectors for black women and men, respectively—were excluded from many of the benefits of labor legislation and social security.

Race and the Fall of the New Deal Order

In the end, while Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt became beloved figures to millions of black Americans, the New Deal did little to advance the cause of racial equality in America. Roosevelt's unwieldy coalition of black people and white Southerners survived the 1930s intact, but ultimately broke apart under the strains of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. It was no accident that the conservative revival in America in the late twentieth century began with the mass defection of white Southerners from the Democratic Party following desegregation.

"Fixing the country is fun and all, but where's the good if you can't hate someone for the color of their skin?" —Southern racists, presumably.

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