Living for the City: Robert Clifton Weaver’s Liberalism

Living for the City: Robert Clifton Weaver’s Liberalism

Living for the City: Robert Clifton Weaver’s Liberalism

A biography of Robert Clifton Weaver traces the life and times of an often misunderstood urban reformer.


Schomburg Center, NYPLRobert Clifton Weaver at HUD headquarters, 1968

In July 2000 a ceremony was held to commemorate the renaming of the headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, a modular phalanx of concrete and glass designed by Marcel Breuer and completed in 1968. Democratic luminaries such as Andrew Cuomo, Charles Rangel and Daniel Patrick Moynihan gathered to celebrate the dedicatee’s life; he was, in Cuomo’s words, a “pioneer who broke through barriers of racism again and again, to build a life of extraordinary achievement and public service.” The praise was richly deserved, for Robert Clifton Weaver had been a prominent economist, a longtime advocate of fair-housing laws and a member of the country’s black intellectual elite ever since the days before the end of segregation. President Lyndon Johnson had appointed Weaver to head HUD after the agency was founded in 1965, making him the first black cabinet official in American history. And it was Weaver who had dedicated the new HUD building three years later, its Brutalist architecture still cutting-edge and the idealism of the Great Society still fresh.

The story of Weaver’s life, as told in Wendell Pritchett’s new biography, Robert Clifton Weaver and the American City, points to a lesser-known narrative in the long struggle for racial equality–one focused on the politics of Northern cities rather than Southern churches, on economic claims more than moral ones, on regulatory agencies and cabinet meetings rather than lunch-counter sit-ins and mass marches. Yet Pritchett’s biography also offers another story, one about the political limits and personal costs of midcentury liberalism for men like Weaver. The New Deal and Great Society policies that Weaver defended only sometimes fulfilled the promise he thought they held for African-Americans, and even then they did so mostly under the pressure of mobilization rather than from the patient and steady work of insiders like him. For all he accomplished during his remarkable life, Weaver emerges as an ambivalent success in Pritchett’s book, a man whose greatest dream, that government action could ameliorate the poverty of African-Americans in the country’s cities, remained in many ways unrealized. By the time Weaver was rightly memorialized by the renaming of the HUD headquarters in 2000, the building seemed as ponderous and passé as the dreams of Great Society liberalism.

Robert Clifton Weaver was born in 1907 in Washington, DC, the second son of parents descended from several generations of strivers. His maternal great-grandfather, although born a slave in North Carolina, was able to obtain training as a carpenter and to hire himself out to the builders of Raleigh. He gave part of his pay to his master and kept the remainder, and over time he was able to purchase not only his freedom but also that of his wife and six children. Weaver’s maternal grandfather grew up in Washington, reaching maturity in the era of Reconstruction. He seized the possibilities of that moment, applying to Harvard University’s new dental school two years after the end of the Civil War and becoming the first professionally trained black dentist in the country. Upon graduation in 1869, he moved back to Washington, opened a practice and established a position for himself in Washington’s black elite (the “black 400”) at a time when the city was known as the “Capital of the Colored Aristocracy.” His daughter–Florence Freeman Farley, Weaver’s mother–graduated from high school, a rare accomplishment for young black women in the late nineteenth century. Florence knew Latin and read her children Tennyson and Longfellow. (Weaver’s father was a high school graduate and a clerk in the Post Office, one of the highest government positions open to African-Americans in the early twentieth century.) The Freeman family legacy was the ardent belief that individual merit and self-reliance could surmount racial hatred. Weaver remembered his mother telling him as a young boy, “The way to offset color prejudice is to be awfully good at whatever you do.”

Weaver and his older brother, Mortimer, whom Weaver thought of as the real intellectual of the family, attended Dunbar High School, which was known as the “crown jewel” of the capital’s segregated school system. From there, Weaver went to Harvard, yet the migration north was not the journey of improvement it had been for his grandfather. The forty-two black students in the early 1920s–seventeen undergraduates, twenty-five graduates, all male–mostly lived off campus and took their meals apart from the white students. The university president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, barred them from the freshman dorms altogether. As Lowell wrote to the father of an incoming black freshman, “It seems to me that for the colored man to claim that he is entitled to have the white man compelled to live with him is a very unfortunate innovation.” (Lowell also advocated for a 15 percent admissions quota for Jewish students to limit their enrollment.) Weaver had trouble taking his studies seriously; he was often distracted by the social life of Cambridge, especially by “courting,” as he put it. But after his older brother–who had become an English professor–died in May 1929, the educational and professional ambitions of Weaver’s family, its mandate of individual achievement, became his own. His parents, he thought, would be terribly disappointed if he became a lawyer, as he had planned. He had to earn a doctorate. And so he became the first black person to receive a PhD from Harvard in economics.

Harvard’s economics department in the 1920s was intellectually and socially conservative, a far cry from what it would become in the postwar era, when John Kenneth Galbraith was on the faculty (or even the 1930s, when it was home to Joseph Schumpeter and Alvin Hansen, the “American Keynes”). Weaver’s thesis adviser, William Ripley, argued that the biological superiority of Anglo-Saxons explained the industrial advancement of the United States and Europe. When Weaver began graduate school, he wanted to write a dissertation that would “concern Negroes”; he initially proposed a thesis about “Industrial Education and Industrial Opportunities for the Negro.” But once he started work on the thesis, he switched to a more abstract argument about wages and prosperity.

The only jobs open to Weaver when he received his doctorate in 1933 were at black colleges (the first tenure-track black professor would be hired by the University of Chicago in 1942). Although he had taught briefly at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College before he started writing his dissertation, upon completing his degree Weaver turned to politics, first with an organization advocating on behalf of fairer treatment of African-Americans by the National Recovery Administration and then as an adviser on Negro Affairs to Harold Ickes, Roosevelt’s Interior Secretary, who directed the New Deal’s Public Works Administration (PWA). Weaver was not the only black adviser in the Roosevelt administration; several dozen young black college graduates and longtime civil rights movement leaders made up the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, known colloquially and in the press as the Black Cabinet.

The Great Depression was especially devastating for black Americans. By 1932 black unemployment in American cities was more than 50 percent; in the Southern countryside, black cotton farmers found themselves unable to earn any profit at all. Because it offered some relief, the New Deal won the support of black city dwellers, especially during Roosevelt’s second term; by 1939 the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was giving financial support to a million black families, and the program employed thousands of black teachers, composers, artists and writers (a quarter of a million African-Americans learned to read and write in the WPA Education Program). Both the WPA and the PWA banned discrimination in their programs.

Yet in part because Roosevelt and his liberal allies in Congress always relied on the support of Dixiecrats, they could never make racial justice a central plank of the New Deal. Southern states often disregarded federal antidiscrimination directives, and Roosevelt didn’t risk making reprisals. His first cabinet was largely hostile to civil rights. Agricultural and domestic work–the occupations that employed most black workers–were excluded from Social Security. The actions of the US Housing Authority, which built more than 130,000 housing units and was a precursor to the later postwar federal housing programs, were sabotaged by Jim Crow. Many of these new apartments went to African-Americans who otherwise would have been living in desperate conditions, and civil rights spokesmen praised the program for charging black tenants lower average monthly rents than whites. But in the South, the new federal public housing buildings were always segregated–and they often were in the North, as well. A housing project in Williamsburg provided more than 1,600 apartments for white Brooklynites; one in Harlem gave fewer than half that number to black families. When Weaver, in 1940, gave a speech before the National Negro Congress defending the opportunities the program had offered for integrated housing (some fifty projects housed both black and white families), conservatives seized on his remarks and managed to get the program’s funding cut altogether.

Because of the Roosevelt administration’s timid commitment to racial justice, Weaver–as a loyal New Dealer–often found himself the target of fierce criticism from the African-American left. The black advisers who worked for the executive branch, wrote Howard University historian Rayford Logan, were merely “the type of Negro that the white people wanted–one who knew what to say and what not to say; one who gladly accepted what the white officials gave Negroes and never made any further inquiry or complaint.” This view seemed to be vindicated in 1941 when labor leader A. Philip Randolph threatened to organize a march of 100,000 blacks on Washington to protest discrimination in defense jobs and the Army. Weaver had a new government job at the National Defense Advisory Committee, where he was supposed to help integrate African-Americans into the industrial defense program, but he found himself defending companies like Curtiss-Wright, an aircraft manufacturer, against charges of discrimination. Weaver had been able to negotiate a deal whereby Curtiss-Wright would train 1,200 black workers at its plant in Buffalo, New York, but activists argued that this was insufficient, given that the company’s Paterson, New Jersey, factory had only sixteen black workers on a payroll of 16,000. Weaver worried that the protests and demonstrations would stir up “reports of extreme racial chauvinism on the part of Negroes, of super-sensitiveness which complicates their problem of industrial employment and of a discrimination mindedness which influences their participation in the armed forces”–this, at a time when the Army kept its blood supply segregated so that white soldiers would not receive transfusions of blood drawn from African-Americans. Ultimately, Randolph, in return for calling off the protest, was able to secure what Weaver could not–a guarantee of colorblind hiring practices in defense programs and the creation of a Fair Employment Practices Commission to investigate charges of racism. The armed forces remained segregated until after the war.

Weaver left Washington during World War II and–along with his wife and their adopted son (Pritchett says the child was most likely born to an unmarried relative)–moved first to Chicago and then to New York City, holding various positions in and out of academia. It was during this period that he wrote his second and most influential book: The Negro Ghetto (1948), a counterpoint to Gunner Myrdal’s An American Dilemma. (His first book, Negro Labor: A National Problem, was a well-received treatment of employment discrimination.) Instead of focusing on the South, The Negro Ghetto treated residential segregation in the urban North–and it was one of the first academic works to do so, long before the notion of the “inner city” became as well worn as an old penny. Instead of looking at racism primarily as a “moral issue,” as Pritchett puts it, Weaver sought to explain “the economic motivations and institutions” that drove patterns of segregation in Northern cities. He explained how brokers, by creating severe housing shortages in black neighborhoods and by stimulating anxieties about integration, were able to wrest high profits from frightened white families selling their homes. The economic dynamics of white flight needed to be challenged if residential segregation was to be overcome.

Powerful and detailed, The Negro Ghetto provided an argument in favor of using public housing to create integrated neighborhoods and dismantle the myths of prejudice. Weaver criticized the creation of segregated projects, arguing that they would only exacerbate the problems of the ghetto and that it was “a matter of grave concern to Negroes and liberals when the rise in institutionalized residential segregation was accelerated by housing planned, financed and sometimes owned and managed by the Federal government.” The book also indicted the irrationality of racial covenants (which stipulated that homes had to be sold only to white buyers). In 1948, shortly before the publication of The Negro Ghetto, the Supreme Court overturned racial covenants. Although the Court’s decision did not cite Weaver’s research directly, his work was widely thought to have affected the outcome; perhaps in part because of its influence in the case, The Negro Ghetto garnered glowing reviews. Carey McWilliams described it as the “finest study of its kind that has appeared to date,” and the New York Times pronounced the book “a comprehensive, authentic survey of an acute social problem.”

The Negro Ghetto made Weaver’s academic name, and he became a leader in the fight for fair-housing laws. In the 1950s, New York Governor Averell Harriman appointed him deputy commissioner of housing (he also served as rent administrator for the state’s rent-control board). Yet as Pritchett makes painfully clear in the second half of his book, despite Weaver’s mounting successes, the sense of insecurity instilled in him as a young striver never entirely subsided. He and his family rarely attended the parties and other social events that were a regular part of life for many black intellectuals in New York at the time. His subordinates referred to the “Weaver treatment,” which one described as a politeness “so unrelieved in its iciness that its victims felt they would be warmer if they curled up in a refrigerator.” When a friend called to let Weaver know that he was being offered a job in Harriman’s administration, Weaver at first hung up on her, thinking she was joking.

A bigger call for Weaver came in 1960, when John F. Kennedy nominated him to head the Housing and Home Finance Agency, a predecessor to HUD. After being redbaited in hearings by Congressional conservatives, one of whom asked if it bothered him that The Negro Ghetto had been named a “book of lasting value” by an operation called the Workers Book Shop in New York City, Weaver was confirmed. His tenure had some real successes: in November 1962 Kennedy signed an executive order banning discrimination in federal housing programs–something Weaver had fought for ever since the New Deal, made possible at long last in the early ’60s by the surging civil rights movement. But Weaver remained a man apart in the capital, a full participant in neither the Kennedy administration nor the civil rights movement. He was hardly involved in the discussions over King’s 1963 March on Washington (it is not clear that he even attended the demonstration). He told a reporter that “black chauvinism” was as bad as white, and that he was involved with civil rights “as a liberal, rather than a Negro.” But he had few friends in the Kennedy administration; all of the president’s civil rights advisers were white, and Pritchett notes that Weaver was expected to stay focused on housing, not to get involved in broader conversations about civil rights. Weaver accepted this position, preferring, as Pritchett says, to be seen “as a professional who was black rather than a racial advocate.” It is not hard, though, to imagine Weaver’s frustration with being expected to represent the race while at the same time being excluded from the most important debates about racial politics. Acquaintances described Weaver as “basically a loner” who went every day to the counter of a hotel restaurant to eat a sandwich for lunch by himself.

The political costs of such isolation became clear after Johnson created HUD in September 1965. Since Weaver was the head of the Housing and Home Finance Agency, many thought Johnson would quickly tap him for the job. Instead, Johnson dragged his feet. He told Roy Wilkins of the NAACP that Weaver was not a sufficiently “imaginative” leader and that the first head of HUD should be a white man–perhaps the philanthropist Laurence Rockefeller–who could “do a hell of a lot more for the Negro than the Negroes can do for themselves in these cities.” For years Weaver had hoped to be taken seriously as a liberal leader on his own terms, without regard to his race. Later on, he said he “would like to feel that I was appointed not because I was a Negro, but maybe in spite of that fact.” But for Johnson the appointment was about nothing else–if he selected Weaver, he feared, critics would accuse him of not picking the best man for the job; but if the job didn’t go to Weaver, he would disappoint the “little Negro boys in Podunk, Mississippi,” and civil rights leaders would say “when you get down to the nut-cutting…this Southerner just couldn’t quite cut the mustard–he just couldn’t name a Negro to the cabinet.” For the proud, restrained Weaver, the waiting was torturous, a “very, very difficult thing,” as he remembered in later years. Humiliated and made miserable by reports of Johnson interviewing other candidates, he nearly resigned. And when Johnson at last offered the HUD post to Weaver early in 1966, it was almost too late for him to enjoy it.

Once in office, Weaver presided over a great expansion of public housing. More affordable housing was built under the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968 than at any other time in the nation’s history, and Weaver’s proposals were the ones the administration followed. A national fair-housing law was finally passed in 1968, with Weaver lobbying Congress to support it. Yet these were also the years of the riots in cities like Detroit, of deepening poverty and deindustrialization. Black radicals criticized the housing projects that Weaver helped to build as simply reconstituting the ghetto in new ways. They rejected his quest for a race-blind meritocracy; in a July 1967 column, Jimmy Breslin quoted one such activist: “You know what everybody says about Weaver? They say, ‘He’s light and bright and damn near white.'” Weaver was deeply troubled by the riots, which he argued represented a deepening “community despair and hopelessness” that could only be undone by concerted government action. But the Great Society lasted just a few years, razed by the politics of backlash as white city dwellers reacted to the housing projects rising in their neighborhoods by fleeing the cities in a panic about living next door to blacks. The public housing projects that Weaver had once viewed as the beachhead of a better society came instead to more closely resemble holding pens for the poorest of the poor, people left out of any social compact whatsoever. The projects became exactly what Weaver had once wanted above all to avoid: a second ghetto. Not only the vision of public housing but the buildings themselves seemed to have failed.

Weaver left Washington with Johnson, telling the president, shortly before Johnson chose not to seek re-election, that he planned to resign at the end of 1968 no matter who was in the White House. He returned to New York City, where he served as the first president of Baruch College of CUNY. There, his long career in public service had a sad coda: he sat on the board of directors of the Municipal Assistance Corporation, the organization created to float bonds on behalf of New York City during its fiscal crisis and flirtation with bankruptcy during the mid-1970s. The MAC helped to enforce a dramatic program of restructuring for the city government, cutting funds for daycare, schools, firemen, police, social workers and hospitals, as well as instituting tuition for CUNY. Although the New York fiscal crisis in many ways marked the end of the expansive liberal vision Weaver had long championed, he was a silent member of the board, doing little to shape the course of events. He told an African-American State Assembly member that “you may be sure” that when “specific issues affecting minorities” came before MAC, he would speak up for “what I believe to be the interests of those so long disadvantaged.” But according to Pritchett, the minutes of MAC meetings contain no evidence that Weaver ever tried to do so; perhaps he felt there was nothing he could really do. He ended his career at Hunter College, living on the Upper West Side until his death in 1997. His wife–a light-skinned black woman who was able to pass as white and who received hate mail from segregationists chiding her for marrying a black man–had died a few years earlier, and their adopted son (the “Bobby” to whom he dedicated The Negro Ghetto) had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the early 1960s. Weaver–true to form–said nothing publicly about his son’s death and destroyed all the letters of condolence he received. Three years after Weaver’s death, the HUD headquarters was rededicated in his name.

By the end of Pritchett’s book, one is struck by how much Weaver was hindered by the New Deal and Great Society liberalism that nurtured his long career. In some ways midcentury liberalism was always a precarious politics, especially with regard to race. In the 1930s the Roosevelt administration, never unequivocally committed to civil rights, made its peace with the Southern Democrats; in the ’60s Johnson’s expansion of the welfare state coexisted with a deep paternalism. For a young, ambitious black man like Weaver, the choice to ally himself with these mainstream liberals–as opposed to working with the more radical social movements that so often forced their hands–could not help but yield a certain frustration. Pritchett avoids venturing into the dangerous terrain of psychohistory, preferring to present Weaver as a pioneer in race-blind politics. Yet it also seems possible that Weaver’s careful and lifelong eschewal of radicalism was the result, in part, of his own deep sense of an imperative, instilled by his parents and grandparents, that his individual accomplishments were the ultimate measure of success. And if at times this meant steering clear of engagements that might prove dangerous to his quest for mobility and security–that was the cost of moving forward in the world.

One can’t read Pritchett’s book without thinking of Barack Obama, whose career seems, in certain respects, a reflection of Weaver’s ambiguous legacy. Obama’s victory undeniably marks one kind of progress toward racial equality. And surely Weaver would be thrilled to see Obama in the White House (which was built mostly by slaves and free blacks), identifying with the candidate’s choice to carve out a career at the pinnacle of American politics and his promise to transcend the politics of race. (Weaver might also have appreciated that during Obama’s tenure as a community organizer, he worked in the Altgeld Gardens housing project in Chicago–a World War II development that was part of the early wave of public housing.) Yet even as it is now possible for a black man to become the president of the United States, the cities to which Weaver dedicated his life remain nearly as sharply divided by race and poverty as they have ever been. The battered buildings of the housing projects of Chicago and Detroit that Weaver worked so long, with so much hope, to build, cast their long shadows on the pages of this book, bleak reminders that the triumph of an individual cannot alone make up for these larger defeats. The strength of Robert Clifton Weaver and the American City is that it enables the reader to see the victory and the loss at once.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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