The pundits were quick to evaluate Barack Obama’s election in light of African-American political traditions going back to the civil rights movement and even Reconstruction, but they have turned increasingly to lessons from the history of the New Deal.
Obama invoked that legacy repeatedly during the campaign, from the account of how his grandfather benefited from the GI Bill to his proposals to create jobs and economic growth through federal investment in education, industrial innovation and infrastructure. Such rhetoric allowed him to claim the legacy of the most popular and successful government programs in American history, but it also displayed some of the limitations of New Deal policies, particularly in their ability to address racial inequality. We can thus turn to the history of those programs for an indication of how the Obama administration will confront the interrelated problems of economic and racial inequality in the twenty-first-century United States.
Despite conservatives’ alarm about “the slippery slope to socialism,” Franklin Roosevelt displayed a strong aversion to direct control over the economy. Instead, his administration relied on civil society groups to implement and enforce government policies. Rather than impose wage and price regulations to stabilize the economy, for example, the National Recovery Administration allowed business associations to establish standards and then empowered unions to enforce them. That unprecedented mobilization of civil society sowed the seeds for the industrial union movement, which proved critical to Roosevelt’s re-election in 1936 and deepened his commitment to social democratic reform in the late 1930s and early ’40s.
It was this synergy between federal policy and popular mobilization that created the “greatest generation” that, as Obama stated in June, “conquered fear itself, and liberated a continent from tyranny, and made this country home to untold opportunity and prosperity.” Increased protection under the National Labor Relations Act allowed unions to raise wages and benefits steadily in the 1940s and ’50s, while the GI Bill and other programs helped workers invest those gains in new homes, college education, health insurance and pensions. By 1951 even Fortune magazine had to admit that the expansion of organized labor had made the worker “to an amazing degree a middle class member of a middle class society.”
But there is a more troubling side to the New Deal’s legacy, which will not be resolved through populist appeals to the struggling middle class. A growing body of scholarly literature has shown that the same reliance on civil society that inspired the labor movement also prevented the Roosevelt administration from addressing deeply ingrained racial inequalities. While unions improved wages and conditions for industrial workers, they had little impact on the agricultural and service sectors, where the vast majority of blacks and Latinos labored for low wages without collective bargaining rights, health insurance or even Social Security. The GI Bill offered mortgage assistance and scholarships to all veterans but did nothing to ensure that African-Americans could use those benefits to attend segregated colleges or buy homes in segregated neighborhoods. Indeed, had Obama’s paternal grandparents lived in the United States it is unlikely they would have shared the sepia-toned vision of the New Deal era that was so pervasive in his campaign material.
The civil rights movement was in many respects an effort to address those shortcomings. Voting rights and equal protection had been central to African-American political objectives since Reconstruction, but demands for equal access to education, housing and employment addressed the more immediate racial injustice of New Deal policies.
President-elect Obama has an opportunity to further racial and economic justice by fusing the New Deal and civil rights traditions. He expressed that link directly in Philadelphia in March, when he insisted that unless Americans confront racial inequality directly, they will “never be able to come together and solve challenges like healthcare, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.” Such a confrontation would entail strengthening the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other civil rights agencies, while addressing racial inequalities in primary school funding, economic development and incarceration. Just as the GI Bill benefited white veterans more than black ones, race-neutral policies are likely to exacerbate existing inequalities.
Many of Obama’s supporters have already made that connection. Union density is roughly the same now as it was before Roosevelt’s election in 1932, but organized labor has incorporated the lessons of the civil rights movement perhaps more consciously than any other institution. African-Americans are more likely to belong to unions than any other racial group, and many have risen to positions of power in the nation’s largest and fastest-growing unions. Those same unions have built close alliances with organizations dedicated to civil rights, not only for African-Americans but also Latinos, women and gays and lesbians. Obama has promised to sign the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for unions to organize and thus bolster their ability to support his re-election in 2012.
There are certainly risks to this approach. Journalist Matt Bai noted during the campaign that Obama’s appeal depended at least in part on his refusal to “behave like a civil rights leader.” Just two days after the election, the New York Times reported that Obama had already “begun an effort to tamp down what his aides fear are unusually high expectations among his supporters.” His transition team is dominated by veterans of the Clinton administration, which retreated from its attempt at healthcare reform and adopted the conservative mantra that “the era of big government is over.”
Some will certainly advise Obama to adopt a similar stance. But that would likely prevent him from implementing the reforms that inspired his supporters in the first place. His victory depended on his ability to mobilize a broad, multiracial majority, an achievement slighted by John McCain and others who restrict its “special significance” to African-Americans. That majority acted out of the belief that Obama was best prepared to address the economic crisis, but many voters, white and black, also saw in him a chance to overcome the racial inequalities that have plagued the United States since its founding. History tells us that Obama may not be able to deliver his promise for economic change without also embracing the civil rights movement’s call for race-conscious reform.