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During economic crises, marginalized communities are more susceptible to the harm and struggle that come with these downturns. Today we'll talk about the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 until the US entered World War II. This depression profoundly changed the US economy, and we'll focus on how the depression impacted Black Americans.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed is available now!

● Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, To Ask for an Equal Chance: African Americans in the Great Depression (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009).
● Keisha N. Blain, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).
● Robin D.G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communist During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
● Erik McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
Aaron Douglass -
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CC Kids:
Hi, I'm Clint Smith and this is Crash Course Black American History.  Economic crises usually affect marginalised people differently. This is because systemic injustices typically create environments where historically oppressed people have fewer resources to work with before the crisis, less access to entitlement programs to help them during the crisis, and more burdens to carry by the time the crisis is over. Whether we're talking about the economic downturn in 2008, or the COVID-19 pandemic, historically marginalised communities are disproportionately impacted by these crises, and no historical moment better reveals this than the Great Depression. Let's start the show.  

So, the Great Depression started with the stock market crash in 1929, and lasted all the way until the United States entered World War II. But what we don't discuss often about the Great Depression is that it actually exacerbated an already widening economic gap in the United States. Unemployment was at an all time high, standing at approximately 25 percent at the peak of the Great Depression. At the same time, unemployment for Black Americans was as high as 50 percent overall, and as high as 70 percent in some cities like Atlanta, Georgia.  

Part of this did have to do with the stock market crash, but it also had to do with other forces, like agricultural changes and natural disasters. For example, in the South, where many Black Americans lived, agriculture was becoming increasingly industrialised, which pushed many Black folks out of work. There was also a decrease for consumer demand in cotton and sugar, which led to overproduction, and a serious decline in prices. The collective economic down turn provided a perfect avenue for Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be elected president in 1932. He instituted many social welfare programs that are now lauded as "The New Deal." And this was a big deal, no pun intended. Because most Americans at the time frowned upon government intervention in issues like poverty.  

Many people believed that it was the job of charities and religious institutions to tackle things like that. However, the breadth of the Great Depression, combined with the lack of Federal oversight of the stock market, led many Americans to shift their views on what they believed the role of the government should be and that presented the perfect opportunity for President Roosevelt's New Deal policies. 

President Roosevelt's First New Deal included the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which gave grants to local agencies who were tasked with helping those who were affected by the Great Depression. The First New Deal also included the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed many young men to work on projects in conservation and flood control.

The Second New Deal occurred between 1935 and 1938, and it produced a lot of programs that we recognize today, like the Social Security Act. This foundational law led to a system that took on unemployment, pensions for the elderly, aid to the disabled, poor, and families with dependent children. The National Labor Relations Act was then passed in 1935, which made sure that Americans had the right to unionize and ask for fair wages.

The story of the New Deal is often one that focuses on how it lifted millions of people out of poverty and gave them a pathway to the middle class, the sort of life where they could buy homes and cars and go on vacation and send their kids to college, but many of these opportunities weren't extended to Black people, at least not in the same way or nearly to the same degree.

One of the reasons the results were mixed was because these programs were administered locally, and, theoretically, that doesn't sound like a bad policy decision. It makes a lot of sense to decentralize aspects of government so that things can be administered more efficiently, right? And local governments tend to know more about the people in their individual communities and what they need, right? Well, maybe.

The thing is, local governments often also reflect local customs, and, in many parts of the United States, local customs were inseparable from Jim Crow and white supremacy. So even though the federal government entitled Black Americans to many of these benefits, white Americans who were working on the local level often refused to give Black people access to these programs. Southern politicians prevented Congress from attaching any sort of anti-discrimination provisions to a number of social welfare programs, including community health services, school lunches, and hospital construction grants.

What's more, there were parts of the New Deal that were specifically constructed in ways that prevented Black people from having access to some of its most economically generative programs. For example, farm workers and domestic workers were not included in the Wagner Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. According to the historian Ira Katznelson, these groups constituted more than 60% of the Black labor force in the 1930s, and nearly 75% of those who were employed in the South were excluded from the legislation that created modern unions, from laws that set minimum and regulated the hours of work, and from Social Security until the 1950s.

The NAACP testified against the legislation leaving farm workers and domestic workers out of it, arguing that it was "like a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through." And this wasn't just some coincidence. It was intentional. Roosevelt really had to walk a fine line between his legislative priorities and the power of Southern Democrats in Congress, and Black people became a casualty in the process of finding a legislative compromise.

So think about it - you give one of the greatest catalysts of intergenerational wealth to white people, and you very intentionally don't give access to those same programs to most Black people, and then people wanna act surprised, generations later, when there are disparate outcomes along the lines that these resources were allotted.

And the impact of this is compounded across generations and is part of the reason that the racial wealth gap still exists today. As Katznelson puts it, "At the very moment when a wide array of public policies was providing most white Americans with valuable tools to advance their social welfare, insure their old age, get good jobs, acquire economic security, build assets, and gain middle-class status, most Black Americans were left behind or left out."

Still, there were some ways that Black Americans benefited from the New Deal policies. For example, the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, was established in 1935 and provided public works projects for individuals that needed employment. It not only built infrastructure that we use today, like roads and bridges, it also sponsored many Black writers through what's known as the Federal Writers Project.

One of those artists was Zora Neale Hurston. Many people know her for her fiction during the Harlem Renaissance, but she also did vital work in preserving American stories and culture. She traveled to Florida's back roads and turpentine camps to document the stories of exploited Black workers, many of whom were formerly enslaved. It was part of a project called The Florida Negro.

Aaron Douglas was an artist funded by another federal program known as the Public Works of Art Project. He was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the New York Public Library called Aspects of Negro Life. The four murals documented the history of Black Americans from slavery up until the Great Depression.

Black Americans also gained a greater presence in civil service. In 1933, there were 50,000 Black Americans in public service, but by 1946, there were 200,000 Black Americans, and some of these opportunities came through political appointments. This included women like Mary McLeod Bethune, who was the head of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration.

She also established the Federal Council on Negro Affairs in 1937, which became nicknamed the Black Cabinet. This was a group of Black policy advisors whose goal was to shape the New Deal to better benefit Black Americans and address their concerns. Other members of the Black Cabinet were Robert C. Weaver, Eugene K. Jones, and William H. Hastie.

Politically, there were other challenges for Black Americans, though. You see, Roosevelt won by building a coalition within the Democratic party that included a variety of different people, and even though Black people were a portion of that coalition, they weren't all of it. To please the people in his coalition who didn't really care about Black people having equal opportunities or who actively opposed Black people having such things, President Roosevelt didn't give Black people some of the things they most needed. For example, he didn't push for a federal anti-lynching bill, and he was at best inconsistent in his support of ending the poll tax, which kept millions of Black people from voting.

So, as has been the case throughout history, when Black Americans don't get the help they need from the government, they organize among themselves. Black churches, in particular, organized many benevolent services to help the extremely poor and those in need. In the face of such an abject abdication of the government's responsibility to Black people, Black activists and advocacy groups engaged in rent strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience interventions. For example, Ella Baker exposed the exploitation of Black women in her article on the Bronx Slave Market, which was essentially where Black domestic workers gathered daily in hopes of being picked for day jobs by white employers.

The Great Depression was an incredibly challenging time for many Americans, but it was especially difficult for Black Americans, and so many of the very policies that were meant to pull Americans out of poverty and help them rebuild their lives were purposefully designed to keep Black folks from being able to use them, and this legislation in the New Deal is a perfect example of how, sometimes, in order to create policies that disproportionately harm Black people, you don't have to explicitly write, "I want to harm Black people." All you have to do is say, "Farm workers and domestic workers aren't included," knowing full and well that the vast majority of those jobs, especially in the South, are held by Black people.

That's how racism works sometimes. It tries to hide behind race-neutral language but still have the same racist outcomes, and this is something that we still see today. Policies and legislation that are harmful to Black people without explicitly writing out their bigotry in the actual bill. But just because you don't see it on first glance, doesn't mean it isn't there. Thanks for watching; I'll see you next time.

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