The Trump administration is quietly dismantling a historic government agency that has policed discrimination among federal contractors since the New Deal. The dramatic move—pushed by lobbyists from the Heritage Foundation now working in the White House—to disband the Federal Contract Compliance Programs has enormous implications for an American workforce where nearly one of every four workers is employed through federal contracts.
The agency has its origins in the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) created through executive order by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 after labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph threatened to lead a “March on Washington” of 100,000 African Americans to protest rampant discrimination in the wartime defense industry. Many black activists and writers had spent the early war years pointing out the hypocrisy in being conscripted to fight fascism abroad while the American government oppressed black citizens at home. The FEPC was a landmark achievement for labor and civil rights leaders who were able to translate black demands into federal legislation for the first time since the Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction.
Despite being extremely limited in its ability to enforce anti-discrimination measures, the FEPC raised the profile of the civil-rights movement to a national level for the first time. Roosevelt’s executive order was widely applauded in the black press, and Randolph himself labeled it the “Second Emancipation Proclamation.”
By the end of World War II, the number of jobs held by African Americans was at an all-time high. In 1942, African Americans accounted for only 3 percent of all defense-industry jobs. By the end of the war, they made up 8 percent, and 200,000 were employed by the government, more than three times the number before the war. While still confronting racism and discrimination, black workers saw their wages increase, and many held onto their jobs well after the end of the war. Thousands of black women also found work in wartime industry—often only after the FEPC intervened on their behalf. Washington, DC, and Brooklyn’s Navy Yards hired its first black women in 1943 and 1945 while complaints continued to be filed in much of the auto industry.
Many writers on the left, including Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, have come to see New Deal liberalism as inseparable from the maintenance of white supremacy. Undoubtedly, white-supremacist politicians and voters who both supported Roosevelt and Jim Crow were part of the coalition that passed the New Deal; they were also the group who filibustered some of its most egalitarian proposals. But if the New Deal—either as a set of programs or as a new form of liberalism—contained racist elements, it also created institutions that advanced racial equity.