From Full Employment to Racial Democracy

From Full Employment to Racial Democracy

From Full Employment to Racial Democracy

In the second half of the 20th century, Black politics began to shift away from its focus on economic inequality.


“Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practices Act, but what good will it do if profit-generated automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers, Black and white? We want integrated public schools, but that means we also want federal aid to education—all forms of education.”
—A. Philip Randolph,
At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963

My last column traced an almost forgotten history: It emphasized that Black and other advocates of racial justice, through the first two decades or so after World War II, commonly assumed that winning and securing advances for Black Americans depended on the pursuit of universal social wage policies.

Between the 1960s and the 1990s, the character of what we understand as Black politics changed, to the extent that by the early years of this century, drawing attention to apparent racial disparities had become the defining characteristic of Black political discourse. That is, focusing on Black/white disparities—and that alone—came to be what made “Black politics” distinctively Black. By 2015, the center of gravity of Black political discourse had shifted to the extent that universal redistributive policy proposals could be dismissed not only as irrelevant to Black Americans but also as pandering to white racists. What happened?

Several factors came together to underwrite this 180-degree shift. First, as the political scientist Preston H. Smith II has stressed, for more than a generation beginning in the 1940s, insurgent Black politics rested on two distinct principles of social justice: racial democracy, or strict equality of opportunity within capitalism, and social democracy, which was reflected in the view that Black advancement was inseparable from the continuing growth of a strong industrial-union movement and the expansion of universal social wage policies. The social-democratic perspective included Black Americans’ interests within those of the broad working class. Although conflicts between the two occasionally erupted in concrete instances, reflecting Black Americans’ differing class positions and interests, those principles often overlapped. As abstract commitments, they seemed compatible, in that scholars and activists rarely saw them as distinct—much less as potentially in conflict.

During the 1950s, the ground for the pursuit of racial justice shifted under racial advocates’ feet in a way that undercut the social-democratic ideal. Legal scholar Risa Goluboff has examined how an emerging racial liberalism encouraged a civil rights litigation strategy that eschewed claims based in work and the labor relation, except as racial discrimination, in favor of a 14th Amendment focus that interpreted racial injustice solely as “a problem of state-mandated segregation causing psychological harms…[that] subordinated the material to the psychological” and “subordinated the problems most acute for working African Americans to those most acute for the more privileged of the race.” Historian Leah N. Gordon poignantly reconstructs how the carrot of a psychological focus on prejudice was combined with the stick of anticommunist intimidation to silence even Black scholars and racial advocates who only recently had embraced Popular Front radicalism. The effect was to encourage or compel their acquiescence in the shift away from a view that tied racial inequality to capitalist political economy.

Hysterical anticommunism camouflaged both the corporate and the conservative offensives against social-democratic redistribution and the encroachment on the absolute priority of capitalist property rights that had begun before the war ended. Impressive economic growth during the postwar decades provided a rising standard of living for enough of the population—the “rising tide” strategy that Joy Reid has mistakenly attributed to advocates of social-­democratic redistribution—that it arguably obviated pursuit of more aggressively redistributive policies.

Left-liberals congealed around full employment as an emblem of the sort of social transformation they sought, while their antagonists stressed concern with combating inflation and assuring currency stability as government’s paramount responsibilities. Although few represented it in those terms at the time, in the 1950s the “full employment/inflation trade-off” in effect became a basis for class struggle at a level of abstraction, giving it a technical gloss that muted its zero-sum character. As unemployment rates remained unacceptably high by the standards of the period—from the end of the Korean War to the end of the Eisenhower administration—stagnationist or left-Keynesian economists argued that the problem was structural: It resulted from a large-scale reorganization of the postwar economy in which whole sectors shed jobs via automation and other means at a rate that far outpaced job growth in other sectors. From that perspective, addressing chronically high unemployment required active government intervention of the sort laid out in the failed 1945 Full Employment Bill, including federal job-creation programs.

Most economists and policymakers, however, including those in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, rejected the idea that high unemployment primarily resulted from structural features of economic performance. That rejection stemmed partly from ideological opposition to active government intervention in the economy, partly from mainstream economists’ closing ranks around the field’s orthodoxies, and partly from political resistance to potentially large increases in government spending.

In that context, resolution of three related policy debates in the early 1960s marked the ultimate defeat of the full-employment option by definitively separating the domain of redressable inequality, economic and racial, from political economy. Linked controversies—over the sources of chronic unemployment, the shape of the War on Poverty, and the debate over how to address racial inequalities in employment in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act—were resolved on terms that all but eliminated social-­democratic-leaning voices and advocates of universal social policies from the national political debate.

My next column will examine the impact that those debates, and their resolution, had on the trajectory of Black American politics and on how we have thought about race and inequality since 1965.

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