Thursday, May 31, 2012

Steve Horwitz on Jewish opponents of the NRA

Steve has an interesting article in The Freeman here.

He's sort of shooting fish in a barrel by recounting the opposition of Jewish butchers (the Schechter brothers) to the NRA. The club of people who think the NRA was a bad idea is very, very long, after all. Steve wonders why Jews don't celebrate the Schechter brothers as heros today, speculating that it might be out of love for FDR. I think it's simpler than that: the NRA is generally regarded as a bad idea and a failure, so it was more of a forgone conclusion. While Steve does raise interesting points about the prosecutor playing on public anti-Semitism, it's not like the NRA was implemented to hurt Jews or anything like that. This is not exactly Esther vs. Haman, in other words. I'm guessing that's why you don't hear about them as much.

I do have big concerns about this passage: "At the same time, criticisms of the NRA grew, not the least from the African-American community, which correctly saw attempts to raise wages as a means of shutting black labor out of the market. Writers at the Chicago Defender, the local black paper, referred to the NRA as the “Negro Run Around” and the “Negro Removal Act.” The NRA’s harm of black workers fits into a longer story how of labor market regulation was used for racist purposes."

It is true that in the early New Deal period Roosevelt didn't do much to challenge discrimination, but the claim here by Steve is a little odd. After all, black support for Roosevelt was enormous in 1936, which is quite impressive given the legacy of animosity between the Democratic party and blacks.

It is true that in the face of NRA wage increases many employers chose not to hire blacks. Roosevelt had a solution for this in the 1940s in war-related industries: he made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, with phenomenal results. He could do that in the 1940s when the nation was on a war-footing. He couldn't do that in the 1930s with the NRA. Perhaps Steve agrees with me that it would be nice to have had anti-discrimination legislation even earlier, but it seems very misleading to paint the New Deal as bad for blacks just because many employers were racist at the time.

It's also worth mentioning that amidst discriminatory employers, the New Deal provided millions of jobs to blacks through the CCC, WPA, and NYA. These programs not only didn't discriminate - they actually had quotas to guarantee economic opportunity to blacks.

So let's not get the wrong view of the New Deal here. The NRA was dumb, but it wasn't inherently anti-Semitic or anything like that. The NRA probably hurt blacks too but because a lot of employers were discriminatory in their hiring anyway, and Roosevelt couldn't do anything about it the way he eventually did in the 1940s. And Roosevelt did inaugurate many programs to directly address black poverty and Southern poverty - an issue his administration was acutely concerned about. The reason why people like FDR is because (although he made mistakes) he took important steps to end or at least alleviate the depression. And the reason why FDR was able to swing blacks so fervently toward the Democratic Party is that he ranks up there with Lincoln and Johnson for his achievements on civil rights and racial equality. From the vantage point of 2012, it's not all rosy, but a lot of progress was made.

One more note - if Steve is looking for Jewish role models during the Depression, one place to look might be Leon Keyserling.


  1. While I'm with you on most of this, I think you're a bit too charitable to FDR on civil rights. FDR could *easily* have incorporated anti-discrimination language in the NRA. He had no trouble giving workers at NRA-participating companies union rights. He didn't do the same for blacks because it would have ticked off his southern Democrat allies. He removed single-payer health care from the Social Security Act for the same reason.

    I would be curious to learn about how FDR wooed the black vote, since this did occasion a pretty dramatic realignment.

  2. Daniel: you might find this book *Only One Place of Redress* by David Bernstein worth reading on the topic of blacks, labor legislation, and the New Deal. This is also of related interest:


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