B. Roosevelt and the Beginnings of the Social Security Act

There were two primary risks to the racially segregated southern economy. First were initiatives that improved the economic standing *498 of blacks in relation to whites, which threatened to reduce the economic dependence of blacks. The New Deal outlined several programs that stood to upset this delicate balance by promising to pay out benefit payments or unemployment insurance under the Social Security Act, equal and minimum wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act, or equalizing bargaining power under the National Labor Relations Act. Furthermore, these programs called for a centralized federal administration as opposed to local control which certainly promised to disrupt the racist status quo of corruption and disparity for blacks.

Early in his campaign, President Roosevelt laid out a vision of society safeguarded from economic turbulence. However, the racial entrenchment of American politics at the time proved insurmountable. What came out of Roosevelt's vision was a collection of social policies fragmented along racial, class, and regional lines. The entire body of legislation known as the Social Security Act is tainted by the nasty racial politics of the time. The Act contains race-based exclusions that by design were intended to exclude African-Americans from fully benefiting from the Act.

Ultimately, the combination of a labor-repressive agriculture system, a highly mechanized scheme of racial marginalization, and a racially segregated economy subdued African-Americans on both economic and political fronts. The Act used several different means to achieve this racial imbalance; these exclusions were done in part by omitting the occupations in which most African-Americans worked, by drawing a stringent qualification standard that many African-Americans could not meet, and, most importantly, by preserving local autonomy.

*499 Key Congressional leaders restricted Roosevelt and his administration from passing anything resembling a racial issue. More importantly, this significant cadre of congressional leaders knew they controlled enough votes to make their threat credible. Roosevelt was in a unique position; the economy was floundering and he needed the support of the southern leadership. Roosevelt often commented to his staffers that, “first things come first ... I can't alienate certain votes I need for measures that are more important at the moment by pushing any measures that would entail a fight.”

The lack of support for racial inclusivity is most notable in the exception proposed for the Old-Age Insurance portion of the Social Security Act. Old-Age Insurance was proposed as a national program, the proposal for a national program was generally accepted after a recommendation was made from the Committee on Economic Security. However, the committee immediately rejected the notion that all workers should be covered. In order to garner congressional acceptance of Old-Age Insurance, the most distinguished portion of the Act, concessions to exclude domestic workers and agricultural workers were made. These concessions immediately converted a national program into a racially segregated program.

The committee members who brought up these exceptions to the insurance program were Southern Democrats. Both chairmen of the Committee on Economic Security were very vocal when it came to discussions on whether to include agricultural and domestic workers. The legislative history indicates that the drafters of the SSA originally intended for all to be covered. Shortly after the original proposal, the language of the Act was amended.

*501 Testimony given by Representative Howard W. Smith of Virginia and Representative Thomas Jenkins of Ohio makes clear that the committee was well informed that the people being excluded from the Act were largely from “the colored class.” Rep. Smith's testimony before Congress also establishes that he was highly aware that excluding the laboring class, particularly the farm labor class, would exclude a disproportionate number of African-Americans. Ultimately, the methodical prohibition of blacks through occupational classifications was fundamental to the final passage of the Act.

The removal of these occupational classifications came in light of testimony from African-American representatives that the exclusion of these two groups would be detrimental to black retirees. The most prominent of those speakers was Charles Hamilton on behalf of the NAACP. Hamilton testified that the law as amended would only be available to persons in recognized employment relationships.

[I] call the committee's attention to the fact that the definition of those who are to benefit under the unemployment-insurance provision is left up to the respective States. Now, where the Negro population is in the majority, or in largest numbers, you have the Negroes in occupations which, either under workmen's compensation acts or any other sort of legislation or other economic-insurance protection, are excluded from the benefits of the [A]ct. In these States, where your Negro population is heaviest, you will find the majority of Negroes engaged either in farming or else in domestic service, so that, unless we have some provisions which *502 will expressly extend the provisions of the bill to include domestic servants and agricultural workers.

Grossly unresponsive to the effects that such an amendment might have on blacks and seeking to gain the Southern Democrat voting block, Congress passed the SSA with an exclusion that exempted a very significant portion of African-Americans from receiving Old Age Insurance. The restrictions, in the end, meant that over half of the African-American population in the labor force and over three-fifths of black southern workers were excluded from receiving benefits.

This adamant desire to exclude a large portion of the African-American population from enjoying the benefits provided under the Social Security Act is just one of two ways that many scholars argue that the segregated legacy of Social Security still lives on. The Act was authored in 1935 to pass constitutional muster. However, many scholars contend that the end result of the bill was a policy that highly favored the white male working population to the exclusion of both African-Americans and women.

The second way in which the SSA is organized to exclude minorities is through its state-centered distribution plan. Southern Democrats fought to create an institutional structure that allows for the states to control the distribution of benefits. There were heated debates in both the House and the Senate about how much control the states should have. Scholars have long agreed that Southern Democrats were largely motivated by a desire to attract business investment in the south. President Roosevelt's New Deal legislation was used as a catalyst to ensure that wages for working southerners were suppressed to spur economic growth. The exclusion of African- *503 Americans began as traditional racism--an effort by those in power to suppress African-Americans economically and politically. The impact of New Deal policies and government organizations has had a long lasting impact. As the country moved slowly away from the Jim Crow era, the political institutions created during that time remained.