5 Nice-Sounding Government Policies With Secret Racist Origins
Hey, have you ever heard that the government is racist when it gets rid of programs that help people? Well, we took a look at some of those programs, and we've got some bad news for you. It turns out the programs are pretty racist themselves.
And no, we're not going to twist ourselves and argue that you're somehow being racist against a group of people by helping them, or being racist against whichever other group thinks they're footing the bill. You'll have to switch to Fox News if that's what you're looking for. No, we're talking about the origins of these policies, little-known details like ...
The National Free Breakfast Program Comes From Trying To Stop The Black P anthers
The US government has a history of spying on Black civil rights groups, a tradition that even continues to this day. That history hit its peak in the '60s with the Black Panther Party, which the FBI considered less a "civil rights group" and more a "terrorist organization." Cofounded by Black activists Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in 1966, the Black Panther Party was basically a response to all the awful stuff Black people faced in the '60s, from lynching to police brutality, and it focused on empowering Black people and securing basic rights.
The Black Panthers aimed to bring Black communities together through mutual aid. For example, after the government failed to help feed Black children, the Black Panthers decided to do it themselves and started a Free Breakfast for Children program in 1968.
This program was feeding tens of thousands of kids every day, which soon gained the attention of the FBI. If there’s one thing the "greatest country on earth" hates, it’s being outdone at its own job. J. Edgar Hoover had eyes on the Black Panthers constantly, and he even wrote in a memo in 1969 that the Breakfast for Children Program was a weapon the Panthers were using against America itself.
So it wasn’t long before the government finally created its own breakfast program in the '70s, not just because they wanted to follow the Panthers' good example but because they wanted to undermine the group by supplanting them. And this worked: They stole the Panthers' thunder, making it harder for them to build communities like they'd been doing. Which sucks, but at least kids did get to eat something in the morning, something better than the Swedish Fish and Jack Daniels that start our day when we're adults.
Federal Housing Was Created To Empower S egregation
FDR had an enormous hand in designing our modern welfare state, through the explosion of legislation known as the New Deal. That included sweeping federal housing reform, which helped secure housing for the working class. However, given that it was 1930s America, one group was, of course, left out of this massive housing overhaul: African Americans. The Federal Housing Administration was designed to help facilitate homeowning but created a whole lot of redlining—the process of denying mortgages to neighborhoods deemed "financial risks" and flat out denying subsidies to Black neighborhoods. Many housing subsidies were awarded to builders to create white neighborhoods, but the FHA basically did not allow Black people to buy any of these new homes.
Richard Rothstein discusses this further in his book The Color of Law, pointing out that there was basically no real reason for any of this discrimination besides racism. Even the usual suspects, like “they’re lowering our property values” just weren’t true, as property values actually rose when Black Americans tried to buy houses. That's because they'd pay more than white people, given how, y’know, they didn’t have a lot of options.
This all had a heavy hand in designing what scholars call New Segregation. If you’ve ever wondered why modern-day neighborhoods still seem divided by race, or why Black people tend to be in worse-off neighborhoods, you can thank the racist legacy of the FHA. Racism, racism never changes.
The GI Bill Was Racist And Excluded Black P eople
World War II claimed 85 million lives, but with how good we are at killing other human beings, it was only a matter of time before we collectively decided to put all of that aside and work toward making lives better, not taking them. That’s where the GI Bill came in. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (to use its fancy name) included benefits such as money for college, mortgages, life insurance, training programs, and so on, giving vets a huge leg up. The bill still exists today, in a slightly tweaked form, and still helps a lot of war vets. But not many people know the bill's racist history.
When white soldiers returned to America after the war, they were able to take full advantage of the bill to secure housing and education, but Black soldiers on the other hand were often met with rejection when trying to get a house. White people would threaten would-be Black neighbors with violence and sometimes lynching, and mailmen would sometimes not deliver GI Bill applications to Black vets. Many Black vets were outright disqualified from the bill itself, as you needed an honorable discharge for benefits, and a disproportionate number of Black soldiers never got one, for provably unjust and racist reasons.
So how did this happen? Well for starters, Southern democrats right off the bat opposed the bill, fearing that giving any kind of human decency to Black people would make them realize how terrible segregation is and fight back—as opposed to Black people already knowing how terrible shit was. Lawmakers like John Rankin argued that the bill should be handled by states instead of federally, thus allowing states unlimited discretion in how to dole out benefits.
And though the bill eventually passed, most of its critics got what they wanted, as segregation kept the bulk of Black vets out of the facilities and services that the bill subsidized, widening the racial wealth gap significantly. And that's far from the only example of welfare leaving some people out ...
Cash Assistance And Welfare Have A Long History Of E xclusion
There’s one thing to know and remember about the US government: It never does anything solely out of the kindness of its heart. This much is true with welfare programs themselves, which basically started out of the idea that poor people should stop complaining and get their lives together. But nowhere is this more explicit than with how welfare was handled early on in America.
The Aid to Families with Dependent Children act, introduced in 1962, aimed to provide families with financial assistance to help them get through tough times. A good chunk of it, however, went mainly to widowed white women, as the eligibility was entirely state-determined, meaning that states often kept these benefits from Black people. On top of that, new discriminatory requirements in the '40s and '50s like “suitable home” and “man of the house” were directly targeted at Black families, which were often disproportionately not "suitable" or fatherless.
Another barrier to benefits for Black people came in the form of the Work Incentive program of 1968, which introduced the work requirements you see in welfare and cash assistance to this day. Sounds reasonable maybe, but Black people were more likely to be out of a job.
We could probably find more examples of the government failing to give stuff indiscriminately, but let's end with a story about the government taking things away:
Modern Gun Control Started With Fear Of Black People
Given how many mass shootings happen in “the only nation where this regularly happens,” it’s no surprise that people might want to improve society somewhat and introduce a bit of gun control. The founding blueprint of modern American gun control, however, was actually drafted in 1967 by Ronald Reagan. And he was responding to no particular act of murder but to the idea of Black people carrying guns in the streets.
The Black Panthers had been conducting what they called "copwatching," keeping tabs on police abuses. During one memorable incident that year, a cop interrogated Panther Huey Newton about his weapon, and Newton answered, “If you try to shoot at me or if you try to take this gun, I’m going to shoot back at you, swine.”
Amazingly, the cop let Newton go with both his life and his freedom, but this idea of Panthers arming themselves/talking back clearly frightened people. This led to the proposed Mulford Act, which would repeal California's open-carry law. The Black Panthers responded to the bill by storming the capitol building of California, which didn't exactly make anyone more comfortable with the idea of armed Panthers.
The act passed with overwhelming support, and soon after, many other gun control acts across the country gained traction. Even the NRA was scared of Black Panthers and supported the act—though they reversed their beliefs shortly after getting what they wanted. Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do something about dangerous weaponry. Just remember exactly where the idea came from.
Top image: FDR Library, Tumisu/Pixabay