Race and Ethnic Relations

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Unemployment more than tripled between 1930 and the beginning of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first term in March 1933. Employers slashed hourly wages by more than half, and opportunities for employment were severely limited. Most native-born white Americans suffered greatly during the Great Depression, but many of America's most visible racial and ethnic minorities had a particularly hard lot. African Americans, Native Americans, and Latino Americans not only experienced malnutrition and hunger that resulted in disease and despair, but even the most able-bodied among them were competing for far fewer jobs. Their employment and health problems were compounded when both racism and nativism reared their ugly heads. The lynching of African Americans in the South increased dramatically during the Great Depression, rising more than threefold between 1932 and 1933. Although blacks were systematically discriminated against in the South in the first New Deal relief programs, the second New Deal legislation—especially the Wagner Act of 1935, which facilitated the entry of blacks into the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)—assuaged racial tensions between black workers and white workers and promoted worker solidarity.

The plight of Native Americans, which had been aggravated by the division of their land into small plots as a result of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, was exacerbated by an inefficient and corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). In 1933, President Roosevelt appointed John Collier to head the BIA. Collier, who had prior experience in urban reform during the Progressive era, immediately moved to upgrade the BIA and to prevent whites from obtaining Indian land. He secured gainful employment for thousands of Indians with the Civilian Conservation Corps, and used monies from the Public Works Administration to pay for schools. Nevertheless, many tribes, especially the Navajos, protested against the Collier engineered Indian Relief Act because it proposed to force the tribe to help prevent soil erosion by reducing its herds of sheep. Still, the Indian Relief Act permitted Indian tribes once again to gain the status of semi-sovereign nations.


In 1930, as the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression became apparent, President Herbert Hoover attempted to halt the rise of unemployment in the United States. Siding with those who advocated immigration restrictions, the president ordered that prospective immigrants who could potentially become public charges be denied visas, a policy that was on the books for the entirety of the Depression. Even under President Roosevelt, Jewish and other refugees from war-torn Europe, including thousands of children, were denied entrance into the United States.

Most Latino Americans—especially Mexicans—had been encouraged to migrate and had formed an integral part of the labor force not only on farms in the southwestern United States, but also in factories in the Midwest and East. During the Depression, many Mexicans left urban areas of the Southwest and attempted to acquire work in small towns and on farms. That action brought them into conflict with native-born white Americans with whom they were competing for scarce employment.

Perhaps the most sophisticated response by a racial minority to the Depression was cultivated by Japanese Americans. Within their niche, they created an infrastructure in which their economy was self-contained and independent of the crisis that beset the larger economy. As a consequence, many Japanese Americans had to accept public assistance during the Great Depression. Nevertheless, after 1931 their presence in California increased the enmity of native-born whites. This resentment culminated in the internment of Japanese Americans in 1942 in the midst of wartime hysteria.

The Great Depression and the New Deal constituted, at best, a mixed picture for Jewish Americans. On the one hand, the 1930s were marked by blatant discrimination against Jews who sought employment in colleges and universities, especially private institutions of higher learning. Nonetheless, many young Jewish Americans were able to obtain employment that was based on competitive merit examinations, and many were hired in Washington, D.C., as public assistants and legal personnel. The resultant cry of "Jew Deal" by other ethnics, as well as Anglo-Saxon Protestants, however, punctured whatever sense of achievement the Jewish men and women might have felt.

Unlike many Jews, most Italians were employed in working-class occupations during the Great Depression and New Deal. Hence, their economic mobility was slower than that of most Jews. The economic position of Italian Americans deteriorated during the Depression, largely due to the huge decline in the construction industry.


The relations between African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Anglo-Americans in relief programs and labor unions were exceedingly complex. Although relief programs, such as those of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), promised to follow a policy of equality of opportunity, they maintained pay differentials, racial employment quota systems, and other forms of blatant discrimination. TVA policies, in short, conformed to the mores of the southern towns in which their white and black workforce was located. Indeed, historian Nancy L. Grant has argued that TVA administrators, by bungling their goals of easing, and thereby transforming, white-black relations in the valley, in reality reinforced older patterns of racial proscription and, as a result, exacerbated tensions not only between members of their racially segmented workforce but also between their workers and the predominantly white communities in which many of them resided.

In Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, and other urban-industrial areas of the Northeast and Midwest, relief work in New Deal agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the Civil Works Administration (CWA), provided much-needed relief, but also increased conflict between unemployed whites and blacks. Furthermore, after the mid 1930s, when the WPA suffered cuts in its appropriations, the competition between the unemployed of both races became more intense. In 1935, the Harlem Riot in New York City underscored these increasing tensions in race relations.

For many Mexican Americans in the Southwest the New Deal federal relief and work agencies reduced ethnic and racial conflict and ameliorated their economic condition. In New Mexico, for example, the Interdepartmental Rio Grande Board opened up available range land for subsistence farmers. The WPA provided jobs for skilled as well as unskilled workers and stimulated an interest among white Americans in Mexican arts and crafts. Nevertheless, overburdened relief programs resulting from low tax revenues and rising costs increased tensions between Anglo-Americans and Mexicans. Anglo-Americans purveyed the stereotype that most Mexicans were lazy and on the dole. Furthermore, Anglo-American administrators in local governments believed that Mexicans were a temporary source of foreign laborers who were not entitled to relief. As a result, white administrators attempted, with some success, to engender Mexican repatriation. More than 500,000 Mexicans left the United States during the Depression.

Relations between blacks and other minorities and whites in labor unions were also variegated. Although predominantly white craft unions discriminated against blacks, and the New Deal still remained the almost exclusive domain of whites, the industry-wide policies of the CIO and the activities of the Communist Party somewhat reduced racial tensions and hostilities. Interracial unions, which undermined companies' use of nonunion blacks as "scabs," brought minority and white workers together under the banner of similarly vested interests and solidarity.


In the midst of catastrophic economic disaster, American social scientists attempted to examine, analyze, and find solutions that would help remedy the socioeconomic problems of the country's major ethnic and racial minorities. The Chicago School of Sociologists—led by two of Robert E. Park's students, E. Franklin Frazier and Charles S. Johnson—was the most prominent group of scholars that took on the task of publicizing the plight of African Americans. Franz Boas and his students of anthropology at Columbia University in New York City performed a similar task for the Native Americans of the West.

Although another of Park's students, Emory Bogardus, an expert in race relations and professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, studied Mexican Americans, the most significant contemporary sociological works centered on African Americans and were penned by E. Franklin Frazier—especially The Negro Family in Chicago (1932) and his classic statement, The Negro Family in the United States (1939). These two books were intended to demonstrate Frazier's revulsion against older writings that argued that black family patterns were a result of racial or cultural traits that had been acquired in Africa. For Frazier, any explanation of the family behavior of blacks in the United States during the 1930s was a direct product of slavery, emancipation, and urbanization. On the basis of statistical data obtained from the census, social service agencies, the police, the courts, and case histories from social workers, Frazier argued that most black families that were held together solely by the ties of sympathy and habit between mother and child, and those families in which the father's interest was based only upon affectional ties, became disorganized in the urban environment. Furthermore, children from these families often became delinquents, and illegitimacy, which had been a "harmless affair" in rural areas, became a serious economic and social problem in the city. Frazier thought that the patterns of behavior molded by rural folk culture were not adequate to sustain blacks when they moved to severely competitive urban areas. On the other hand, the small group of blacks whose family patterns approximated those of the white middle class generally succeeded in resisting the destructive forces of urban life. Their families tended to remain stable, and some of their children entered the middle class. In light of these findings, Frazier was committed to the argument that middle-class culture was a more valuable resource than rural folk culture for African Americans living in urban environments during times of economic plight.

Charles S. Johnson's Shadow of the Plantation (1934), which was a product of his study of hundreds of African-American families in Macon County, Alabama, demonstrated that the sharecropper's life in the 1930s was similar to that of the servile labor force during slavery: African-American farmers, saddled by debt, could not terminate the inexorable movement towards decline. Nevertheless, Johnson argued that there were signs of significant change as some young people migrated to the North; as some who gained education in Tuskegee and Montgomery returned to Macon County; as many young people became literate; and as certain programs of welfare were introduced into the area. By documenting African Americans' assessments of the harsh and often brutal conditions under which they lived, Johnson, like Frazier, in essence discredited the pervasive myth among white Americans of African-American primitivism and replaced it with a sociological analysis that stressed the oppressiveness of the cotton cultivation system.

For both Frazier and Johnson, however, race relations were dynamic: The traditional southern social order was changing—perhaps even breaking up—and the North, where many African Americans had migrated during the 1920s and during the Great Depression years, had an incipient race problem. In 1941, for example, W. Lloyd Warner, a social anthropologist at the University of Chicago, Walter A. Adams, and Buford H. Junker argued that the low social status that characterized the position of African Americans in the South was paralleled in some northern cities, such as Chicago. They noted that African Americans were subordinated in those urban areas as well. The rigid segregation of African Americans and European Americans in residences, playgrounds, schools, and available occupations, as well as the primary and secondary prejudicial beliefs of European Americans towards African Americans, compelled the authors to argue that the system of race relations in Chicago bore a marked resemblance to race relations in the Deep South.

Warner and his associates were correct in pointing to the structural impediments that hampered the socioeconomic mobility of African Americans in both the North and South. Nevertheless, African-American sociologists such as Johnson and Frazier sincerely felt that dynamic forces were altering traditional patterns of race relations—primarily because they could not concede that African Americans, with whose aspirations they were in touch, accepted traditional race relations as part of a natural order. Furthermore, writing at a time when it was apparent that the United States was likely to enter World War II, both black and white liberal and radical sociologists were certain that the status of racial and ethnic minorities would be elevated in the near future. As the United States prepared to confront the Axis Powers, these social scientists knew that discrimination against ethnic and racial minorities in the political and economic spheres was a dangerous liability. In short, they thought—and were correct—that World War II would precipitate fundamental changes in American society in terms of the status of racial and ethnic minorities. African-American participation in the conflict and the desire of the United States government to cleanse its international image would legitimize greater demands for full inclusion in the American mainstream.



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