A History of Liberal White Racism

How bigotry enabled progressive domestic policies of the early 20th century

Probably the most bracing aspect of Ira Katznelson's new history of the New Deal, Fear Itself, is his portrait of the marriage of progressive domestic policy and white supremacy. I knew the outlines of this stuff, but for a flaming commie like me, the extent of the embrace is hard to take:

Far more enduring was the New Deal's intimate partnership with those in the South who preached white supremacy. For this whole period -- the last in American history when public racism was legitimate in speech and action -- southern representatives acted not on the fringes but as an indispensable part of the governing political party.

It actually starts much earlier with Woodrow Wilson who forged a "composite of racism and progressive liberalism" which "came to dominate the Democratic Party, and, with it, the content and boundaries of social reform."

The composite endured after Wilson:

During the 1920s, Alabama's Oscar Underwood and Joseph Robinson of Arkansas led the Democratic Party in the House; Senate Democrats were led by Claude Kitchin of North Carolina until 1923, then by Finis Garrett of Tennessee. With no realistic threat to segregation on the horizon, southern members often allied successfully with western Republican progressives led by Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin and George Norris of Nebraska.

This coalition propelled reform legislation that included the Water Power Act of 1920 and the Merchant Marine Act of the same year, as well as tax laws that maintained the progressive income, inheritance, and excess profits provisions that had been brought in during World War I. It also passed the Maternity and Infancy Welfare Act of 1921, jointly sponsored in the House by the Texas Democrat Morris Sheppard and Iowa Republican Horace Towner, whose pattern of local administration sharply discriminated against black families in the South.

The South's Democrats also supported collective bargaining for unions in the railroad industry, and large-scale power projects, including the epic construction of Boulder Dam, a project that would not be undertaken until 1931.

Their tax policies, in the main, grew more moderate after the 1924 Republican landslide, which weakened that party's progressive wing, but even the more conservative southern Democrats, like Underwood, "sustained much more 'progressive' voting records than their Republican colleagues from New England and the mid-American states" throughout the 1920s.

The uniting force that makes all of this possible is white supremacy. In the Democratic Party of the early 20th century, everything was negotiable save the advancement of black people. Not even the protection of black people was countenanced. During the same period Southern Democrats were supporting railroad unions, they were actively fighting anti-lynching laws. You could easily bring the women's suffrage movement into this also which, by the 20s, had embraced the spirit of white supremacy. The embrace was likely necessary.

I don't know where Katznelson is ultimately going, but I think his point is that -- in the end -- it was a lot of this New Deal legislation, however flawed, that helped bring about segregation's end. Unfortunately, the effects of a social safety net engineered for the aid of some and the hindering of others is still with us.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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