Who Really Got Handouts

In Racism On

In fact, today’s socioeconomic order has been significantly shaped by federally backed affirmative action for whites. The most important pieces of American social policy — the minimum wage, union rights, Social Security and even the G.I. Bill — created during and just after the Great Depression, conferred enormous benefits on whites while excluding most Southern blacks.

Southern Democrats in Congress did this by carving out occupational exclusions; empowering local officials who were hostile to black advancement to administer the policies; and preventing anti-discrimination language from appearing in social welfare programs.

New Deal and Fair Deal initiatives created a modern middle class by enabling more Americans to attend college, secure good jobs, buy houses and start businesses. But in the waning days of Jim Crow, as a result of public policy, many African-Americans were blocked from these opportunities and fell even further behind their white counterparts. The country missed the chance to build an inclusive middle class.

The congressmen from the 17 states that practiced legal segregation constituted a pivotal bloc. When Southern-led congressional committees drafted the law that created the Social Security program in 1935, they excluded maids and farmworkers, the two dominant job categories for Southern blacks and Southwestern Latinos, from the program. This denied benefits to 66 percent of African-Americans across the country, and as much as 80 percent of Southern blacks. It also disproportionately hurt Mexican-Americans.

These exclusions “reinforced the semblance of a caste system of labor in the South and Southwest,” according to a recent study by the scholar David Stoesz. “Absent a government safety net, minority workers had to work at any wage available, until they dropped.” Although the exclusions were eliminated in the 1950s, it proved difficult for these workers to catch up, since the program required at least five years of contributions before benefits could be received.

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