Race Talk and the New Deal

Hillary Clinton, in her 2003 memoir, on the Clintons’ decision to push for welfare reform:

The sixty-year-old welfare system…helped to create generations of welfare-dependent Americans.

Clinton is talking there about AFDC, a New Deal social program.

It’s fascinating—given the recent fights on Twitter, social media, and elsewhere, about the racism of the New Deal—to recall this language of Clinton.

Back in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, that kind of talk—”generations of welfare-dependent Americans”—was code for black people, who were thought to be languishing on the welfare rolls for decades, addicted to the drug of free money, living off the hard work of hard-working white Americans. That’s the kind of language that was used to attack the New Deal. Not only by Republicans but also by the Clintons and their neoliberal allies.

Fast forward 20 years, and Clinton’s supporters in the media are once again using the language of race to attack the New Deal.

Only this time, it’s to say that the New Deal was racist.

Update (11 am)

I should have made something clearer in the post. I didn’t because I assumed people were familiar with a position I articulated last weekend. I’m not critiquing the historiography of the New Deal, which shows that it was built on a series of racist compromises with the South. That position is inarguable and well established in the scholarship. I’m critiquing the weaponization of that argument by a series of liberal, pro-Clinton, anti-Sanders journalists and commentators, mostly on Twitter, who wind up taking a stand against contemporary attempts to push for social democratic-type programs and politics on the grounds that they, too, are somehow racist or fail to do much about racism or mimic the worst parts of the New Deal. The weaponized argument is ever changing and elusive, but the function, as Doug Henwood shows in the piece I linked to above, is generally to delegitimate redistributive politics.

Here’s what I said five days ago about this issue:

I’m about to say something deliberately provocative.

A few months ago, I tenatively advanced the idea in a talk I gave at Brown that Clarence Thomas, far from being an avatar of right-wing conservatism, was in fact a kind of liberal everyman. What I meant by that was that, as many of you have heard me say: a) he was no theorist of color-blindness; b) that he in fact was advancing a notion of the inherently white supremacist character of the American state; c) that he thought racism was intractable; and d) that he did not think racism was reducible OR EVEN RELATED to other features of the American system (i.e., capitalism).

His line of racial pessimism, I thought, seemed to echo some tenets of contemporary racial liberalism. And, in a cheeky moment, I wrote that one of the reasons why liberals are so insistent that Clarence Thomas never speaks — even though he speaks all the time, and if you wanted to know what he had to say, you could merely read his opinions or his speeches; he’s not exactly shy about his views — is that they don’t want to hear what he has to say b/c they’ll find out that some of his views are not that different from theirs.

But in recent weeks, I’ve begun to think that my argument may have even more unsettling ramifications. While many academics have long criticized and historicized the New Deal for its racial exclusions, and some of our best and most important recent scholarship has helped us understand the connections between those racial exclusions and the New Deal as a whole, I’ve noticed that in this presidential primary campaign season, that this scholarship, which is so careful and subtle in its formulations, has migrated into the political/media realm, where it has hardened into a kind of liberal orthodoxy. What is an undeniable historical fact and important dimension of contemporary scholarship, with all of its careful attention to political contigencies and institutional/structural realities of the American state and political economy, has morphed into a vaguer sensibility — not always advanced explicitly, but often expressed in offhand comments on social media threads and whatnot — that any type of state effort at economic redistribution or remediation is by its very nature racially exclusive. So that the exclusion of, say, farmworkers and domestic workers (which was a lot of the Southern black workforce) from the original Social Security program, suddenly appears as a proleptic warning against any and all of Bernie Sanders’s programs today.

That that racial pessimism is so often attached to state projects — while racial capitalism is often given a pass — and that it dovetails so well with the kind of critiques Thomas routinely makes of the regulatory/welfare state, makes me think that my notion that Clarence Thomas is a liberal everyman, originally advanced as a kind of tentative provocation, may in fact have far more truth to it than I ever realized.

I should add a caveat here: these are obviously complicated questions, and there are strong arguments to be had on multiple sides. What I’m talking about is a kind of common sense that gets expressed — not formal scholarship or extensive analysis, but the kinds of things you see in tweets and such. To some extent tweets and such are not that important, but to the extent that they reflect deeper assumptions, particularly in the media, I think they’re something we ought to pay more attention to. This, for me, far transcends whether you supported Clinton or Sanders: it goes to the heart of whether you can imagine any kind of way past the kinds of deep-seated social and economic realities that I’ve been pointing to in my ongoing series‪#‎LiberalismIsWorking‬.




  1. aletheia33 May 21, 2016 at 10:05 am | #

    this is such an important, acute observation, i beg you to make it a longer, more in-depth piece. this information and insight needs to reach a much wider audience than academia.

    and given how hopelessly corrupt almost the entire the current media is (even including many online media outlets)–as the nevada convention debacle’s overnight clarification of all the sources of unreliable propaganda has just definitively established–doing as i beg you to may be the only way to get this word out to the right people: the young activists, and their supporters in the wings, who are now building the political revolution. and remembering that any truthful word to do with race is always (still) the word that spreads least.

  2. louisproyect May 21, 2016 at 10:27 am | #

    Only this time, it’s to say that the New Deal was racist.

    But that’s not really the issue. Instead it is that the New Deal compromised on race. This is fairly uncontroversial. The op-ed article that Corey objects to relied heavily on the scholarship of Ira Katznelson who really knows his stuff. Could the New Deal have been possible without the votes of racist politicians? It is hard to say but FDR’s contempt for Black people is fairly well-established. It is not as if he was against Jim Crow and forced to compromise his beliefs. It was more that he didn’t care that much about civil rights.

    • Larry Houghteling May 21, 2016 at 11:06 am | #

      It seems to me that “FDR’s contempt for Black people is fairly well-established” is an extremely misleading remark. I know a lot about FDR, and that remark doesn’t jibe with what I (and most people) know, any more than the comments of some Jewish historians to the effect that FDR’s supposed contempt for Jews made early actions to save refugees and later actions to stop the Nazi holocaust impossible.

      FDR lived in an era when ordinary white people’s attitudes toward blacks were less broadly humane than is the case today. While FDR obviously had some dealings with highly-educated, intellectually and socially aggressive blacks like labor and civil rights leaders, and there is no evidence of him treating them shabbily, most of the blacks he encountered were servants. There is zero evidence that he mistreated them.

      Moreover, the New Deal was dogged by the firm grip the old Bourbon South had on what Mencken liked to call “the Democracy.” Until the Depression routed the Republicans, the Southerners were probably a majority of congressional Democrats. And the South’s growing contempt for the race-mixing ways of Mrs. Roosevelt was one of the things that was already leading (in slow motion then, but speeded up by LBJ) to the breakup of the traditional Democratic coalition, and the transmogrification of the party of Lincoln and TR into a racist party.

      But to get back to Corey’s point, the Clintons use history the way a lot of people do, as a secret repository from which to mine a good argument from time to time. History in that regard is much like the Bible — you can find just about anything you want in it.

  3. louisproyect May 21, 2016 at 12:05 pm | #

    While FDR obviously had some dealings with highly-educated, intellectually and socially aggressive blacks like labor and civil rights leaders, and there is no evidence of him treating them shabbily, most of the blacks he encountered were servants.

    O’Reilly cites long-time NAACP director Roy Wilkins on FDR: “He was a New York patrician. Distant, aloof, with no natural feel for the sensibilities of black people, no compelling inner commitment to their cause.” O’Reilly adds some details to this portrait:

    Roosevelt had few contacts with African Americans beyond the odd jobs done for an elderly widow while a student at Groton. The servants at the Hyde Park estate where he grew up were all English and Irish. When serving in the New York State Senate he scribbled a note in the margin of a speech to remind himself about a “story of a nigger.” Telling jokes about how some “darky” contracted venereal disease was a habit never outgrown. He used the word “nigger” casually in private conversation and correspondence, writing Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt of his trip to Jamaica and how “a drink of coconut water, procured by a naked nigger boy from the top of the tallest tree, did much to make us forget the dust.”

    full: https://louisproyect.org/2008/09/23/fdr-and-african-americans/

  4. Will G-R May 21, 2016 at 3:44 pm | #

    Corey, have you read Divided World Divided Class by Zak Cope? It makes this argument in detail — that the welfare state is by its very nature built on racism — except it makes this argument from a position to the left of social democracy, and it buttresses the argument with an appeal to the perpetual transfer of wealth under global capitalism from peripheral nations to core nations. In essence, the welfare state is how capitalists bribe the working class in their own local neighborhood to not join their global counterparts in revolution, and the inevitable price of this bargain is that this First-World working class will come to see their global counterparts as less than fully human on racial and national grounds.

    Y’know, just in case you’re tired of punching to your right and wanted to punch to your left for a change.

  5. ronp May 21, 2016 at 3:59 pm | #

    I think Hillary’s views (and the bulk of the Democratic party) today are different from the 1990’s views. You can cherry pick her supporter’s comments and come up with your conclusion, but I think we are moving away from race being an impediment to Nordic style social welfare policies. Who knows if we will get there (we need the will to tax like the UK, Sweden, et al.

  6. graccibros May 21, 2016 at 5:42 pm | #

    Well, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about FDR and the New Deal, and have often quoted, over the past two years, from Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself. I can’t proclaim, however, to be an FDR specialist and biographer who has poured over his letters, notes and scribblings in the margins, nor the private comments he may or may not have made as told to people who knew him. And I’ve heard the racism charges made against him from an editor in New York City. Here’s my sense: let’s concede that he was where most Americans were in the 1930’s: touched with varying degrees of racism, kept out of major speeches, but let loose under private circumstances. Does it change Katznelson’s judgements on the racial and ideological dynamics of the two phases of the New Deal, that after 1938 the white Southern Democrat Chairmen had forged an alliance with Republican business interests in Congress which drew the line on increasing federal interventions into the economy, and into any type of racial progress, even against something as outrageous as lynching? I don’t believe it does.

    Maybe someone can ask William Leuchtenburg, still the living Dean of New Deal historians, who has just churned out a major book on the US Presidency in the 20th century, at the age of 90 or thereabouts.

    I’m deeply troubled by this rift as well as you Corey, and that includes the dynamics in the Democratic Primary. I think Katznelson got it right, sadly, that FDR knew that if he challenged the Democratic South openly, earlier, in parallel to even his first hundred days and New Deal I, through 1935, on lynching even, nothing would have gotten through. I’m also troubled by the accounts of his rift with Norman Thomas on the failure to reach tenant farmers, black and white in the South, Thomas escaping barely, with his life on the line, from an Arkansas attempt to organize them, and almost immediately going to a face-to-face with FDR, who told him he knew more about politics than Thomas did, and that he couldn’t get to the people in the South who needed the economic help the most without jeopardizing his more “universal” bills.

    The language Katznelson employs to describe the dilemmas FDR faced I think shows the awful, grim decisions that had to made. But his dilemmas of the 1930’s, I agree, is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to build upon the Second Bill of Rights from his 1944 State of the Union address, and add the very first right from them, the Right to a Job, to that of universal health care, the two steps go together. And I’ve said many times, in different forums, that the Right to a Job ought to be the policy table where Black Lives Matters can sit down and find some basic common agenda with angry white blue collar workers. It’s amazed me that Sanders hasn’t pursued this right, specifically, despite his Georgetown speech. Instead, the last I’ve read, he proposed, with Danny Glover sitting next to him on a RealNewsNetwork interview, that a WPA type program for urban ghettoes was a good idea. Thus repeating the pathway of the War on Poverty which helped set the white working class on its pathway of alienation and out of the Democratic Party. I was simply amazed at this.

  7. Roqeuntin May 21, 2016 at 7:09 pm | #

    This is the future of US politics. A thin gilding of identity politics to shore up neoliberalism. Diversity at the top, impoverishment for everyone else. Obama really is the wave of the future in many ways, and I expect to see this trend continue. Women and minorities appointed to high visibility, elite positions within state and corporate institutions, with only the most superficial changes (if even that) made towards the structure of the economy itself.

    The garish racism of the right will compound this so as to make it seem that this is what the fight is really about, and tragically will probably make it appear as if the reactionary critiques of multiculturalism have some validity. These dynamics reinforce each other, and while they appear to be opposed on the surface, the conflict will allow neoliberalism to go on working unhindered. Half the stories in the mainstream media are about these damn stupid bathroom laws. I don’t mean to trivialize the plight of trans people, but really? I suppose they’re all too glad that the pesky conversation Sanders forced them to have is over and they can go back to fighting the culture war they always wanted.

    • Ray Phenicie May 22, 2016 at 7:53 pm | #

      “Women and minorities appointed to high visibility, elite positions within state and corporate institutions, with only the most superficial changes (if even that) made towards the structure of the economy itself.”
      Thank you, Thank. You and I can’t thank you enough for putting that out there. The same goes towards the ranks of the celebrity world being laced with heavy membership by women and minorities. Of course in the realm of cinema women are heavily discriminated towards but still the cry is ‘women have achieved liberation for their kind because . . .” and out come the lists of those who achieved celebrity status. Does not mean that liberation is here because of high profile positions being filled by members of groups that are otherwise the first to bear the brunt of oppression.

  8. milx May 21, 2016 at 11:21 pm | #

    I think Corey misreads this argument even as he recognizes that it has become politicized and weaponized to some degree. The argument is more nuanced though and it is that the lesson of America is that you can have social welfare and you can have racial equality but you can’t have both. This is not because there is a secret white supremacist kernel to the Sanders campaign but because of the history of the Democratic party and the Civil Rights. The exodus of white working class voters from the Democratic party as a reaction to its passage indicated – and continues to indicate until today – that a sizable portion of the American public are willing to compromise on their economic self-interest if you will cater to their bigotry. They demonstrated this by electing Republicans presidents over and over again and now, once again, flocking to a candidate completely untrustworthy on working class economic issues but completely trustworthy on pro-bigotry issues. Until the racial inequality is worked out – culturally even more than politically – it will be impossible to build a coalition of voters who support working class economic policy. Minority voters will [rightly] distrust broadly white looking working class movements (and in some cases maybe unfairly write some off that have better racial politics), and white working class voters will refuse to join a Sanders style platform when what they really hunger is bigotry.

    • Ray Phenicie May 22, 2016 at 8:01 pm | #

      In regards to social equality: I believe Bernie Sanders has it right-if everyone has a chance (and you must know the laundry list by now) at economic and social justice, racial biases-by and large (we’ll always have a few haters) will fall away. By the way, that laundry list of economic and social goods-add these:
      1. A national Job Guarantee sponsored by fiscal spending that makes the government the employer of last resort.
      2. Reset the poverty level so that a family of four with an income of less than $45k/yr is defined as being at poverty level. Then do whatever it takes to bring that family income to just $1 over.
      3. Mass Transit in all urban areas so that everyone has a free ride who wants it.

  9. graccibros May 22, 2016 at 11:31 am | #


    I hear you, and you might be right, but I hope not. I agree that a portion of the white working class is racist, and may never come back to support the universalism of the social democratic direction FDR laid out in his Second Bill of Rights, recognizing that blacks and Hispanics will be major recipients. It’s hard not to read M. Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, read about what the Jesuits did at Georgetown in the antebellum period…or the Harvard Law Review’s Policing and Profit and not see the powerful effect of a racism we’ve never fully overcome, even after electing the first Black president and our celebrated “colorblindness.”

    But I want to add several layers of complexity. First, the truth behind the American Dream of upward mobility for all who are willing to work hard is that the day-to-day grind behind the dream, and the inequities of the capitalism that is behind it has always left a strong wake of bitterness towards anyone appearing to get something better (for less than they paid) than those who have righteously struggled on their own – in their own self-righteous framing. We may never take the race out of that dynamic, but I’m suggesting something broader here which breeds resentments until the end of time. (And the resentments are not all racial: one has to be blind not to sense the enormous gulf, cultural, economic and God knows what else – between de-industrialized blue collar men “Deer Hunting with Jesus” and successful “Lean In” feminist entrepreneurs celebrating the End of Men at a Boston College Law School conference with Hanna Rosin. She’s not trying to rub it it…but there it is…nonetheless.)

    Second, the conditions of economic deprivation are now so widespread and felt in the guts of the bottom 60% of all races and genders that while the pain may still be greatest among young black and Hispanics with high school degrees or less, the suicide rates and drug epidemics in rural America – I live in an Appalachian County in Maryland which Bernie Sanders carried in the primary at the end of April – offer the chance, not the guarantee, of making the policies addressing the pain more universal and more acceptable across all the spectrums of our many spectrumed society – a society without solidarity.

    Third, there is yet an additional layer of complexity and strain, our culture of extreme individualism, of self-sufficiency, which will oppose any social democratic proposal and accuse it of undermining the dignity of the individual. This ties in closely with the American Dream. Thomas Frank has given us yet another strand to add to my observations: the Democratic Party has been transformed by professionals moving in to it from the Republican Party since the 1950’s…his version of modern professionals being exemplified by the cabinet choices, Ivy League dominated, of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, a meritocracy in their own eyes. Frank has some incredible descriptions (page 241 of Listen Liberal) of how this has culminated in the Clinton Foundation and its relationship to philanthropy and the highest reaches of American capitalism, especially Silicon Valley and Wall Street, the high tech folks elbowing the Streeters out of the way – for now – on major influence.

    When Frank finishes fleshing out the H. Clinton vision as embodied in her State Department planks, we don’t end up with the supposed solidarity of “It Takes a Village.” Instead we get third world women empowered with micro-lending, uncensored access to the world’s Ethernet, and access to banking, all these pathways winding back to the major corporate institutions of the West’s globalizing Neoliberalism. If there’s a vision of social democracy hiding somewhere in this, it’s news to me. It’s the American Dream in its most basic form taken global. Willy Loman will be taking up some new cultural forms.

    • milx May 22, 2016 at 12:47 pm | #

      I agree 100% that the cult of American individualism is one of the major impediments to any kind of collective welfare. Once you see the disintegration of sittlichtkeit in American life you see it everywhere. I’ve even seen compelling analyses that suggest that Trump’s most fervent supporters are those that feel most alienated from communal life, and that those who feel embedded in family/community (faith + otherwise) are his biggest detractors. Part of the issue here as I see it is that the right and the left both have a piece of the problem but are missing the other half. The right understands that the undermining of the American family and community has degraded our ability to live and function in emotionally healthy environments (and undermined our ability to push for action that would help our communities) but they wrongly attribute it to nonsense like trans bathrooms and gay marriage. The left understands the real cause (American capitalism) but does not sufficiently understand the cost – even among American leftists there’s a strong emphasis on individualism and solidarity is given lip service but not taken seriously.

      • graccibros May 22, 2016 at 1:18 pm | #

        Yes, I think Thomas Frank has caught a good part of the tragedy of American liberalism in his new book, making the linkage clear between professionalism, meritocracy, innovative entrepreneurship (Silicon Valley), empowering women/micro lending abroad as a conservative Democratic “American Dream” answer to the more ambitious social democratic leaning New Deal approach. I had a commentator at the Daily Kos insist that the “Right to a Job” was irrelevant if a white policeman is going to pull you over and ticket you for “driving while black.” I concede the point, but marvel at the alleged mutual exclusivity declared here. Getting to a universal – Right to a Job – does not cure the ugly racial history of America…but it does get at another terrible reality, the one of low incomes and unemployment. And it mitigates, if not prevents the debtor’s prison spiral if one does get ticketed – that both Michelle Alexander and the “Policing and Profit” authors sketched out for us.

        I’m sorry Frank’s book didn’t come out until mid-way of the primary process because it clarifies a lot of what the Clinton’s stand for. Yet to hear a journalist pick up the powerful logic behind his critique of their world view. I find it hard to find the village in the competitive race being exalted. And Frank does an excellent job of describing the Clinton’s famous head fake to the left – Obama’s as well. We keep hoping that “this time it’s different” as Hillary has moved ostensibly, under great pressure, to the left, but Frank’s analysis tells us not to get our hopes too high, the old script is too powerful, punctuated now by her appointment of Bill to redo the memories of “his” economy from the late 1990’s, which Frank shreds.

  10. Seer Clearly May 23, 2016 at 10:27 am | #

    It’s telling that a discussion of the New Deal in the light of Sanders’ proposals includes the shockingly relative term, ‘redistributive politics.’ It goes to show how far the Right had come in injecting neoliberal terminology into the political discourse and even the communications of the Left. Sanders’ proposals would indeed increase taxes, but far less than the levels seen even in the 1970’s. So really, what’s being ‘redistributed’ is Ill gotten gains that the elite and corporations received under well compensate neoliberal regimes. Those gains belonged to the government and by extension the people they serve, not those complaining about redistribution. The right phrase is ‘equality politcs’ if your going to be phrase happy, since the original phrase is redundant with better and more accurate terms from economics, and usage of such phrases trends to opinionize and trivialize the quantitative, repeatable, provable nature of economic theories (excepting made-up scammery like Supply-Side economics.). Politics enables the implementation of economic policy, but the phrase ”redistributive politics’ makes it impossible to distinguish between the two without driving the discussion into the realm of opinion.

  11. Kenny May 28, 2016 at 6:09 pm | #

    The New Deal was a failure. Get over it, unproductive leftist

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