From FDR to LBJ, Racism and Liberalism: A Very Brief Overview

The 1930s were turbulent times for much of the world. Unprecedented circumstances and the resulting fears caused by the Worldwide Great Depression called for equally unprecedented responses. Prior to the 1930s, the United States generally operated under the political philosophy we would recognize as libertarianism today. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs gave liberalism the definition it has today in the United States and forever changed the relationship between the government and its people.


FDR is frequently overly idealized by the political Left as a visionary and sometimes demonized by the political Right as some kind of fascist dictator. Neither vision is correct. FDR by no means made the United States a Utopia. He also by no means dismantled the Constitution or decreased opportunities available to Whites.

Of course, FDR accomplished much and brought much needed and welcomed security to individuals. The relationship between people and the government completely changed; however, this new blanket of government protection was almost completely limited to individuals racialized as White. Ultimately, FDR’s legacy is more important than his actual actions.

Here are a few of the ways in which FDR and his presidency neglected individuals racialized as non-White.

  • FDR’s New Deal pretty much completely ignored and neglected Black individuals. 50% of Blacks were unemployed (compared to a high point of slightly over 20% of the nation as a whole). 65% of Blacks who were allowed to continue working were domestic or agriculture workers. The Social Security Act did not cover these jobs. Wages for Blacks were three times less than for Whites during the 1930s. “Black jobs” became “White jobs.” New Deal recovery programs were generally limited to Whites. And FDR had no desire to challenge segregation.
  • Several hundred thousand Mexican Americans, both immigrants and citizens, living in the Southwest were forcedly deported. This process was called Mexican Repatriation. It began under Hoover but FDR continued it.
  • With Executive Order 9066, FDR authorized en masse discrimination against Japanese Americans. The Department of War initially ordered all Japanese Americans living on the west coast to leave immediately. Relocation was not possible because of rampant discrimination around the nation. Idaho’s governor declared: “The Japs live like rats, breed like rats and act like rats. We don’t want them.” Ultimately, voluntary measures failed and over 100,000 Japanese Americans were forced to live in internment camps. While these were no where near as inhumane as the death camps in Germany, these camps (sometimes called concentration camps) were surrounded by barbed wire and provided vastly inadequate food, shelter, schools, and medical care. We know now from additional evidence and research that basically no one after Pearl Harbor had security-related worries, it was all racism pure and simple.

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  • FDR (and the World) also knew about the atrocities being committed against Jews and others as early as the late 1930s. While the US did take in more Jewish refugees than other nations, the quota was still very low.

FDR, of course, was a product of his time. Naturally, presidents do not have full control over everything that happens during their time in office. As is very clear in politics today, it is always easy to criticize someone for what they did do and what they did not do.

The important point here is that anti-racism and the embracement of minorities had not yet become a cornerstone of United States liberalism – indeed even if FDR had wanted to embrace minorities the nation wasn’t ready for it. The embracement of women, blacks, immigrants, and other minorities first truly began with LBJ. People also idealize JFK and his presumed role in the Modern Civil Rights Movement. In reality, JKF was much more focused on and concerned about international issues. After JKF’s assassination, LBJ successfully united people in the United States around JFK’s memory and accomplished more for Black people (and poor people) than any other president. Indeed, LBJ made the Democratic party the party of liberalism that sought to embrace—truly embrace—minorities. At this same time, the Republican Party became a party founded on the rights and supremacy of white upper class individuals and middle class and lower class white individuals who tend to sometimes “think” they are one step away from being wealthy. The Republican Party also refounded itself on a new, radical version of Christianity.

FDR, in closing, deserves mush credit for founding and promoting what developed into the nation’s best, most inclusive, and most visionary political philosophy–a philosophy that continued to grow and continues to do so –a philosophy of liberalism that enabled the human rights of countless individuals to be possible. Check out his Economic Bill of Rights and his vision of the Four Freedoms. FDR is basically the founding father of American Liberalism and possibilities for true, codified equality for individuals outside of the “White” middle- and upper-class elite.


“All right-wing antigovernment rage in America bears a racial component, because liberalism is understood, consciously or unconsciously, as the ideology that steals from hard-working, taxpaying whites and gives the spoils to indolent, grasping blacks.”

Further reading:

Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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6 replies

  1. (1) Quotas established during the 1920s affected the number of Jews who were allowed to immigrate to the United States. The law would have had to be overturned/replaced for the restrictions to be lifted (which would not happen until 1965, when the restrictions included immigrants from the western hemisphere).

    (2) If FDR and the New Deal were pro-White and anti-Black, why did African Americans switch their political allegiance from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party during the 1930s? Perhaps it was legislation that assisted tenant farmers and sharecroppers (which included a considerable number of African Americans)?

    (3) Perhaps FDR wasn’t necessarily racist, but he knew that he needed the support of Southern Democrats (who were racists) in order to pass New Deal legislation. That doesn’t make him a racist, but a pragmatist. After all, the New Deal did lose steam after a coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats blocked the passage of legislation in the late 1930s (and it had become increasingly evident that the New Deal programs didn’t really improve the economy).

    (4) If you look at Kennedy’s New Frontier, it laid the groundwork for the liberalism associated with LBJ. Unfortunately for JFK, Republicans and Southern Democrats blocked most of his programs, and only the remorse after his assassination led to them getting passed. People tend to forget that the Democratic Party was the party associated with racism until the 1970s, not the Republican Party. In fact, a split in the Democratic Party over the issue of civil rights (with avowed racist George Wallace running as an Independent) directly led to Nixon’s victory in 1968.

    (5) Where have you seen the relocation or resettlement camps where Japanese Americans were moved called concentration camps? Even the Japanese Americans who lived there don’t call them that.

    (6) This radical version of Christianity you refer to–is it the one that requires taking personal responsibility for one’s actions, preserving life, having private instead of public institutions responsible for relief efforts, etc.? Just remember, relief following the Johnstown Flood in 1889 was a lot more efficient and cost-effective under the direction of the American Red Cross than anything FEMA has done.


  2. Thanks for your comments. 🙂

    (1) There is almost always a gap between the law and reality. Things could have changed.
    (2) As discussed in the books named above and elsewhere, it offered an opportunity/possibility of hope.
    (3) I didn’t say FDR was a racists.
    (4) Indeed, liberalism and conservatism and the Republican Party and the Democratic Party were much in flux and different than they are today, in ways. Liberalism from the 1930s has a more straight-foward trajectory, however.
    (5) For starters, in the book listed above. Additionally, every lecture I have heard about these has used the term concentration camps.
    (6) When historians discuss the shift to the new radical/evangelical Christianity they speak of a new philosophy toward religion and its connection with the government. Lots of good books on this. And I don’t see any direct connection per se to the questions of responsibility between the individual and government, etc.


  3. It took an arm-twisting LBJ to push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through a reluctant Congress.



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