Money / Races in America

“Contrary to our popular assumptions about the intent and effect of both the New Deal and the G.I. Bill, they were not intended to, nor did they, provide all poor Americans with equal economic opportunity”

Up through at least the middle of the twentieth century, the government of the United States and various American institutions pursued economic policies that benefited whites and largely excluded African Americans. It was the Jews’ good fortune that, by this point in history, they were positioned in a way to be able to benefit from that largesse. Two recent books by American historians, When Affirmative Action Was White, by Ira Katznelson, and A Consumers’ Republic, by Lizabeth Cohen, address how the legal and governmental structures that were created during the mid-twentieth century served to perpetuate and actually increase the socioeconomic gap between African Americans and whites in the United States. Contrary to our popular assumptions about the intent and effect of both the New Deal and the G.I. Bill, they were not intended to, nor did they, provide all poor Americans with equal economic opportunity.

Thus, the current tenfold disparity in assets between white and African American families making comparable incomes, as documented by Katznelson, is not something that simply came to be or had to happen, but was the product of conscious choices made by government officials. In the case of the New Deal, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt bowed to the reality of a governing coalition that included the segregationist and racist Democrats of the Solid South, who agreed to the legislation establishing Social Security on the condition that it explicitly exclude domestic and agricultural workers, thus leaving most African American workers out of its benefits. Later, when the G.I. Bill was passed to enable veterans of World War II to ascend to the middle class, the administration of these benefits, such as subsidized college education and mortgages, was left to the various states and private entities. The federal government’s willingness to fund an African American veteran’s education was meaningless if he could not find a college in which to enroll, as was its willingness to guarantee his mortgage if no bank would lend to him because of redlining. This history of the middle of the twentieth century becomes a history of many white Americans climbing up the socioeconomic ladder by a governmental framework that created the environment in which their hard work would be leveraged to greater advantage. African Americans enjoyed no such leveraging, and the effects of that, compounded through the generations, continue to be seen in American life.

Rivka Press Schwartz, “Privilege, Perspective, and Modern Orthodox Youth” in The Next Generation of Modern Orthodoxy, ed. Shmuel Hain (New York: The Michael Scharf Publication Trust of the Yeshiva University Press, 2012), 28-29.