Was the New Deal Racist?

Writing in TNR, Adolph Reed Jr. has a good defense of the New Deal as not-racist. I was particularly impressed with his general point that disparity does not necessarily mean discrimination.

In recent decades, “racial disparity” has become the central framework for discussing inequities affecting African Americans in the United States. In this usage, disparity refers to the disproportionate statistical representation of some categorically defined populations on average in the distribution of undesirable things—unemployment, low wages, infant mortality, poor education, incarceration, etc. And by corollary logic, such social groupings are also found to be statistically underrepresented in desirable things—wealth, income, educational attainment, etc.

Identifying disparate treatment or outcomes that correlate with racial difference can be a critical step in validating a complaint. However, the inclination to fixate on such disparities as the only objectionable form of inequality can create perverse political incentives. We devote a great deal of rhetorical and analytic energy to the project of determining just which groups, or population categories, suffer or have suffered the worst. Cynics have sometimes referred to this brand of what we might term political one-downsmanship as the “oppression Olympics”—a contest in which groups that have attained or are vying for legal protection effectively compete for the moral or cultural authority that comes with the designation of most victimized.

Even short of that cynical view, a central focus on group-level disparities can lead to mistaken diagnoses of the sources and character of the manifest inequalities it identifies.


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