Magazine article National Forum

Race and American Social Policy

Magazine article National Forum

Race and American Social Policy

Article excerpt

On April 29,1992, three hours after an all-white jury acquitted four white police officers of the brutal beating of black motorist Rodney King, the streets of Los Angeles erupted in flames as enraged ghetto residents took to the streets. In the eyes of a stunned nation, and especially its black citizens, the verdict was incomprehensible.

Six days later, when the flames had been extinguished, President George Bush declared that what triggered the riot was not frustration at an unjust system, not the despair of grinding poverty and blocked opportunity, but rather the failure of the liberal social programs of the 1960s. An astonished Bill Clinton, at that time his Democratic rival in the 1992 presidential race, scornfully asked why Bush had to return to the 1960s to find a scapegoat when Republicans had held office for twenty of the past twenty-four years. Weren't the causes nearer at hand? As inexplicable as Bush's comment seemed, it accurately captured the idea that during the 1960s, social policy became linked to race in consequential ways.

During the 1960s, other nations added a third tier of social protection to their welfare states that helped to protect vulnerable families against poverty. The United States took another route. Instead of adding a third tier, the United States embarked on a War on Poverty that became in action an agent for extending equal opportunity to African Americans. As the welfare state became embroiled in the struggle for civil rights, it generated a backlash against government-supported social programs. The present state of urban decay is the final price of two decades of neglect.

To understand how the War on Poverty became entangled in the civil rights movement, it is necessary to go back to the origins of the American welfare state and the policy legacy of the New Deal.


The New Deal was the crowning legislative achievement of this century. It provided a base of income security for the elderly, the unemployed, and poor children. It also encouraged the private housing market through federal guarantees of mortgages so that the average American family could own its own home. And for the first time, workers were guaranteed the right to organize into unions. Another, less positive aspect of the New Deal, however, was that most of these benefits accrued to white Americans, but not to black Americans.

Social Security

The Social Security Act of 1935 contained several programs to protect workers against the risks of unemployment and old age. Because southern Congressmen were unwilling to let money go directly from the federal government into the hands of black workers, mainly farmworkers and domestic servants - three-fifths of all black workers - were excluded from social security and unemployment insurance. Instead, they were covered only by the means-tested welfare programs - Old Age Assistance and Aid to Dependent Children - where local welfare authorities could determine benefit levels and set eligibility rules. As a result, in most southern states black families received lower benefits than did white families. Many received no benefits, no matter how poor they were.

Labor Policy

Other New Deal programs also reproduced racial inequality. The National Labor Relations Act, or Wagner Act, of 1935, granted workers the right to organize unions and bargain collectively. But it also permitted labor organizations to exclude African Americans and to establish separate, racially segregated unions. Thus, from 1936 to 1955, when the AFL merged with the CIO, the skilled trades unions maintained policies of racial exclusion and segregation with the tacit approval of the federal government.

Housing Policy

The New Deal also preserved patterns of racial segregation through housing policy. The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) guaranteed mortgage loans but also encouraged racial discrimination. …

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