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Bad deal: how FDR made life worse for African Americans.

Reconsidering Roosevelt on Race: How the Presidency Paved the Road to Brown, by Kevin J. McMahon, Chicago: University of Chicago Press The University of Chicago Press is the largest university press in the United States. It is operated by the University of Chicago and publishes a wide variety of academic titles, including The Chicago Manual of Style, dozens of academic journals, including , 298 pages, $20

FDR's Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression, by Jim Powell, New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of
: Crown Forum, 352 pages, $27.50

FRANKLIN DELANO Roosevelt ranks near or at the very top of almost every standard list of America's greatest presidents. But there is a substantial part of the American public for whom the legendary four-termer did little: African Americans. Despite the determined efforts of his do-gooder wife Eleanor, for example, he failed to support federal anti-lynching legislation and refused to integrate the armed forces. (Successor Harry Truman finally did the latter in 1948.) Although supposedly sympathetic to the plight of black America, FDR was not about to risk losing either his New Deal or World War II by alienating Southern supporters or moving too far ahead of public opinion.

Two recent books, one generally liberal and the other libertarian, offer interesting and divergent viewpoints on what Roosevelt and his New Deal did, and did not do, to improve life for American blacks. In Reconsidering Roosevelt on Race: How the Presidency Paved the Road to Brown, Kevin J. McMahon credits the New Deal with establishing a judiciary "eager to defer" to the executive branch's authority and expertise, allowing the Justice Department to "instruct" the courts on civil rights cases, in FDR'S Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Depression, Jim Powell argues that New Deal economic and regulatory policies were bad for many Americans, especially poor blacks.

Both books offer original and persuasive arguments and engage each other in a number of challenging ways. Ultimately, Powell's case is both more convincing and damning. His evidence reveals that the New Deal threw African Americans out of work, raised the price of food during the depths of the Depression, and granted monopoly bargaining powers to racist unions. In short, Powell writes, "Black people were among the major victims of the New Deal." Such a conclusion doesn't merely reveal FDR's often indifferent attitude toward minorities--in passing wartime travel restrictions and internment rules on Italian Americans, for instance, he derided them as "a bunch of opera singers"--it suggests that a thorough, fact-based re-evaluation of FDR's mythic status as a champion of the underdog is long overdue.

McMahon, an associate professor of political science at the State University of New York (body) State University of New York - (SUNY) The public university system of New York State, USA, with campuses throughout the state. , Fredonia, attempts a bold rehabilitation of our 32nd president. While FDR is often credited with ameliorating the effects of the Great Depression if not actually saving capitalism, as the self-described conservative publishing magnate Conrad Black recently suggested in his hagiographic hag·i·og·ra·phy  
n. pl. hag·i·og·ra·phies
1. Biography of saints.

2. A worshipful or idealizing biography.

 Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom--critics continue to denounce his failure to secure the civil rights of African Americans. McMahon's novel defense of FDR'S race policy is that his creation of a strong executive and deferential deferential /def·er·en·tial/ (-en´shal) pertaining to the ductus deferens.

Of or relating to the vas deferens.


pertaining to the ductus deferens.
 judiciary set the institutional foundation for Brown v. Board of Education Brown v. Board of Education (of Topeka)

(1954) U.S. Supreme Court case in which the court ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
, the 1954 Supreme Court decision overturning the vile doctrine of "separate but equal" In McMahon's words, the Roosevelt Court was "constructed to be instructed by the executive branch on race."

McMahon makes a good case. Eight of Roosevelt's nine Supreme Court appointees were liberal progressives with New Deal sympathies. Five Roosevelt appointees voted with the majority in Brown. The Civil Rights Section of the Roosevelt Justice Department worked closely with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), organization composed mainly of American blacks, but with many white members, whose goal is the end of racial discrimination and segregation.  (NAACP NAACP
 in full National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

Oldest and largest U.S. civil rights organization. It was founded in 1909 to secure political, educational, social, and economic equality for African Americans; W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B.
) and other civil rights groups on cases dealing with police brutality, lynching, and voting rights Voting rights

The right to vote on matters that are put to a vote of security holders. For example the right to vote for directors.

voting rights

The type of voting and the amount of control held by the owners of a class of stock.
 abuses. These actions sent a powerful message to white supremacists in the South and their allies in Washington.

But McMahon doesn't satisfactorily address the major case where his model proves grossly inadequate. In Korematsu v. United States Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214, 65 S. Ct. 193, 89 L. Ed. 194 (1944), was a controversial 6–3 decision of the Supreme Court that affirmed the conviction of a Japanese American citizen who violated an exclusion order that barred all persons of Japanese ancestry from  (1944), the New Deal Court upheld the Roosevelt administration's wartime internment of Japanese Americans. Korematsu, McMahon writes, "represented one of those rare times when the Roosevelt Court's deference to the executive clashed with the advancement of civil rights and liberties." One wonders why such an outrage deserves the qualifier rare. Doesn't this travesty cast into doubt the whole case for combining an empowered president with a pliant court? McMahon doesn't say.

Instead, he reassures readers that "the decision did not negatively affect the campaign to secure the civil rights of African Americans through the courts." The internment of American citizens was "hardly a victory for civil rights" he grants, then returns to his main focus. But since the New Deal Court did not begin enforcing the Equal Protection Clause The Equal Protection Clause, part of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, provides that "no state shall… deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.  in earnest until the late 1940s, the payoff for African Americans was slow in coming.

The most serious question raised by McMahon's thesis, however, concerns the nature of New Deal jurisprudence itself. In 1937, as Roosevelt's crowning legal victory, the Supreme Court overruled Lochner v. New York In Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45, 25 S. Ct. 539, 49 L. Ed. 937 (1905), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a state law restricting the hours employees could work in the baking industry, as a violation of the freedom of contract guaranteed by the , the 1905 "bakeshop" case that established liberty of contract among the individual rights protected by the 14th Amendment from state and federal violation.

Writing for the majority in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish The Supreme Court's decision in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379, 57 S. Ct. 578, 81 L. Ed. 703 (1937), marked the end of an era in U.S. constitutional Jurisprudence. , Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes held that "the Constitution does not speak of freedom of contract." It says only that liberty may not be deprived without due process. And an economic regulation "which is reasonable in relation to its subject and is adopted in the interests of the community," he continued, "is due process." In fact, "even if the wisdom of the policy be regarded as debatable and its effects uncertain, still the legislature is entitled to its judgment." In other words Adv. 1. in other words - otherwise stated; "in other words, we are broke"
put differently
, the Supreme Court should generally presume the constitutionality of laws regulating the economy, as long as they appear "reasonable" and "in the interests of the community." This ruling secured federal and state regulatory power and eliminated the individual right to liberty of contract.

McMahon praises West Coast Hotel, arguing that the triumph of New Deal economics over the Lochner Court's jurisprudence removed an impediment to the civil rights of African Americans. He describes FDR's struggle to "replace a Supreme Court that had consistently restricted liberty" and writes of a "Supreme Court that had consistently endorsed the states' rights states' rights, in U.S. history, doctrine based on the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which states, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.  creed."

Both of those statements are false. Between 1905 and 1937 the Court upheld numerous state economic regulations, including laws regulating the entry width to coal mines (Booth v. Indiana, 1915) and requirements that railroad workers be paid in cash (Erie R.R. Co. v. Williams, 1914). These pro-regulatory decisions discredit McMahon's breezy assertion that the Court "consistently" endorsed laissez faire Laissez Faire

An economic theory from the 18th century that is strongly opposed to any government intervention in business affairs. Sometimes referred to as "Let it be economics.
. Furthermore, a close reading of several key decisions by the Lochner Court shows that individual liberties were sometimes expanded at the expense of states' rights. Lochner itself explicitly declared the Court's authority to review state economic regulations under the 14th Amendment.

Subsequent rulings built on this precedent. Pierce v. Society of Sisters Pierce v. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), was an early 20th century United States Supreme Court decision which significantly expanded coverage of the Due Process Clause in the Fourteenth  (1925) invalidated an Oregon law banning private schools. Gitlow v. New York Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652, 45 S. Ct. 625, 69 L. Ed. 1138, is a 1925 decision by the Supreme Court that upheld the constitutionality of criminal anarchy statutes.  (1925) read the First Amendment, in light of the 14th, as a protection against state restrictions on speech. In Meyer v. Nebraska Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923)[1], was a U.S. Supreme Court case which held that a 1919 Nebraska law prohibiting the teaching of foreign languages to school children before high school unconstitutionally violated the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth  (1923), a decision invalidating a state law that banned foreign language instruction for children until they reached the eighth grade, the Court offered a sweeping definition of liberty under the 14th Amendment.

"Without doubt," wrote Justice James C. McReynolds, one of the "Four Horsemen of Reaction" who later struck down parts of the New Deal on "Black Monday Black Monday, Oct. 19, 1987, in U.S. history, day of financial panic. The Dow Jones Average fell 508.32 points, a drop of 22.6%, the largest since 1914. The point decline as well as the volume, 604.33 million shares, exceeded previous records. ," liberty "denotes not merely freedom from bodily restraint but also the right of the individual to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a home and bring up children, to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and generally to enjoy those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men." This ruling is both strikingly libertarian and totally at odds with states' rights, a position McMahon seems unable to understand.

Most significantly, in 1917 the Court invalidated a Louisville, Kentucky, ordinance segregating residential housing blocks by race. The majority in Buchanan v. Warley Buchanan v. Warley, 245 U.S. 60 (1917) was a unanimous United States Supreme Court decision addressing racial segregation in residential areas. The Court held that a Louisville, Kentucky ordinance requiring residential segregation based on race violated the Fourteenth  noted that "property is more than the mere thing which a person owns. It is elementary that it includes the right to acquire, use, and dispose of it." The Court therefore held that the 14th Amendment "operates to qualify and entitle a colored man to acquire property without state legislation discriminating against him solely because of color." Although the Court at this time failed to reconsider the Plessy v. Ferguson Plessy v. Ferguson, case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896. The court upheld an 1890 Louisiana statute mandating racially segregated but equal railroad carriages, ruling that the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth amendment to the U.S.  (1896) decision ruling "separate but equal" to be constitutional in railroad accommodations, Buchanan demonstrates that liberty of contract could effectively challenge racist and discriminatory laws.

Sadly, the demise of Lochner in 1937 removed this potentially lethal weapon from the impending im·pend  
intr.v. im·pend·ed, im·pend·ing, im·pends
1. To be about to occur: Her retirement is impending.

 fight against Jim Crow. Although both libertarians and their critics frequently associate libertarianism with a states' rights position, liberty of contract demonstrates how an expansive reading of the federal Constitution that sometimes overrides states' rights can be quite consistent with libertarian principles.

This brings us to Jim Powell's FDR's Folly, an excellent counter-weight to many parts of McMahon's book. Powell, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of The Triumph of Liberty, has gathered more than four decades of economic research, most of which has gone unreported by Roosevelt's flattering biographers, that systematically disproves the myth that the New Deal was a successful recovery program. Focusing on outcomes rather than intentions, Powell details the numerous ways the New Deal made life worse for African Americans in particular, and for poor people in general.

For example, the Agricultural Adjustment Act The Agricultural Adjustment Act (or AAA) (Public law 73-10 of May 12, 1933) restricted production during the New Deal by paying farmers to reduce crop area. Its purpose was to reduce crop surplus so as to effectively raise the value of crops, thereby giving farmers relative  of 1933 authorized the secretary of agriculture to inflate prices by reducing farm acreage. This meant white farm owners were paid to let their land sit idle, often resulting in the eviction The removal of a tenant from possession of premises in which he or she resides or has a property interest done by a landlord either by reentry upon the premises or through a court action.  of sharecroppers and tenant farmers, a significant number of whom were African American. Powell reports that reduced acreage particularly affected sharecroppers, whose estimated annual cash income fell from $735 in 1929 to $216 in 1933. The Department of Agriculture, moreover, paid farmers to destroy crops and slaughter livestock. This occurred while millions of Americans went hungry. "This was just the sort of thing," Powell notes," that John Steinbeck protested against in his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath."

Southern states, home to the nation's poorest citizens yet full of dependable Democratic voters, received less New Deal spending than comparatively richer Western states, whose voters perhaps required additional persuasion to support Democratic candidates. Powell cites one study showing that states with a higher percentage of black residents and a lower per capita income Noun 1. per capita income - the total national income divided by the number of people in the nation
income - the financial gain (earned or unearned) accruing over a given period of time
 received fewer New Deal dollars than richer, whiter states. Thus blacks were directly injured by New Deal policies, then ignored when it came time to dispense New Deal dollars.

It was New Deal labor laws that had the most pernicious impact on African Americans. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA NIRA National Institute for Research Advancement (Japan)
NIRA National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association
NIRA National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933
NIRA National Import Racing Association
), in effect from June 2933 until a unanimous Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in May 1933 (in Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495, 55 S. Ct. 837, 79 L. Ed. 1570 (1935), is one of the most famous cases from the Great Depression era. The case tested the legality of certain methods used by Congress and President ), was considered the hallmark of the New Deal. In addition to creating the Works Progress Administration Works Progress Administration: see Work Projects Administration. , the NIRA authorized the National Recovery Administration (NRA NRA

(National Rifle Association of America) organization that encourages sharpshooting and use of firearms for hunting. [Am. Pop. Culture: NCE, 1895]

See : Hunting
), which organized cartels, fixed wages and prices, and, under section 7(a), established the practice of collective bargaining, whereby a union selected by a majority of employees exclusively represented all employees.

While such compulsory unionism is routinely celebrated as a milestone for the American worker, many African Americans saw things differently. The NAACP's publication The Crisis, for example, decried the monopoly powers granted to racist unions by the NRA noting in 1934 that "union labor strategy seems to be to obtain the right to bargain with the employees as the sole representative of labor, and then close the union to black workers." Members of the black press had something of a field day attacking the NRA, rechristening it the "Negro Removal Act," "Negroes Robbed Again," "Negro Run Around," and "No Roosevelt Again."

NRA codes harmed other poor groups as well. By setting the price of food and goods above market levels, the agency's price controls made it that much more expensive for the nation's poor and unemployed to provide for themselves and their families. Struggling entrepreneurs also suffered. Jacob Maged, a 49-year-old immigrant dry cleaner, spent three months in jail in 1934 for charging 35 cents to press a suit, rather than the NRA-mandated 40 cents.

To meet the inflated payrolls required by New Deal minimum wage codes, employers eliminated unskilled and marginal positions, precisely the sort of jobs filled by African Americans and other disadvantaged groups. According to a Labor Department report, between 30,000 and 50,000 workers, primarily African Americans in the South, lost their jobs within just two weeks of the activation of the Fair Labor Standards Act Fair Labor Standards Act or Wages and Hours Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1938 to establish minimum living standards for workers engaged directly or indirectly in interstate commerce, including those involved in production of goods bound  (1938), which set a uniform minimum wage. Not surprisingly, both unions and industrialists in the North favored the minimum wage, since it undercut their competitors in the South.

In 1935 the National Labor Relations Act The National Labor Relations Act (or Wagner Act) is a 1935 United States federal law that protects the rights of most workers in the private sector to organize labor unions, to engage in collective bargaining, and to take part in strikes and other forms of concerted  (or Wagner Act, after its sponsor, Democratic New York Sen. Robert Wagner) revived section 7(a) of the recently defunct NRA and granted monopoly bargaining power to unions selected by a majority of employees. Neither company-sponsored unions nor unions representing a minority of workers were permitted. The act's original draft contained a clause forbidding discrimination against African Americans by federally recognized unions, but the clause was removed at the behest of the American Federation of Labor Noun 1. American Federation of Labor - a federation of North American labor unions that merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1955

federation - an organization formed by merging several groups or parties
; a notoriously racist outfit at the time.

Predictably, FDR failed to spend any of his considerable political capital to retain the clause. Empowered by the Wagner Act, American unions brazenly continued their decades-long discrimination against African Americans, the effects of which are still visible in racial disparities within unionized trades such as construction.

So Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal increased poverty and joblessness among African Americans, empowered discriminatory labor unions, and, when the Supreme Court overturned Lochner v. New York, removed an effective legal tool to challenge segregation laws and other racist state actions. McMahon's ambitious attempt to salvage FDR's record on race is clever, but his focus on the long-term and secondary effects of Roosevelt's judicial nominees and policies fails to convince in the face of the direct negative outcomes the New Deal produced for many American blacks.

Damon W. Root ( is a writer living in New York City New York City: see New York, city.
New York City

City (pop., 2000: 8,008,278), southeastern New York, at the mouth of the Hudson River. The largest city in the U.S.
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Title Annotation:Reconsidering Roosevelt on Race: How the Presidency Paved the Road to Brown; FDR's Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression
Author:Root, Damon W.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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