FDR Roots: AOC's Fumble Harkens Back to Days of Internment and Segregation

An organization that dubs itself progressive with a progressive-sounding name, Social Security Works, is blasting all over the Internet a video it produced from what it believes are flattering cuts of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The video, comment-tweeted by AOC herself, ends with her declaring that “[Democrats] need to return to our FDR roots as a party.” SSW believes it is great advertisement for a Medicare for All agenda.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is, without a doubt, a historical figure. FDR is known for leading the United States through World War II, and delivering at home what many of today’s “economic” progressives pine for: a vision of modicum of retirement security and the New Deal.

The problem with the canonization of FDR, however, is that it ignores horrifying history. Frankin Roosevelt pursued his policies with open and fantastic racism.

The most glaring of these is a deep scar in the American conscience: the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, opening the door to military internment camps for both American citizens and immigrants of Japanese ancestry. Eventually, 120,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry would be interned in these military camps.

Does anyone wish to guess where, outside the military, vast swaths of support for internment camps came from? Did it come from the 1940s version of “soccer moms” who were worried about the safety of their white kids after the Pearl Harbor bombing?

Not really. It came from the 1942 version of what would today be called “white economic anxiety.” White farmers who faced competition from Japanese American farmers were major supporters of this FDR policy. And they openly said so. Austin Anson, a high ranking official of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association in 1942, had this to say about his (and their) support for Japanese American internment:

We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work, and they stayed to take over... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either.

Perhaps we should not be surprised at AOC’s pining for the days of FDR. In some senses, it is striking how similarly - if slightly more veiled - racism was couched in white economic fears back then as it is today. White economic anxiety was not then, and is not now, an economic justice issue. It was then, and is now, a racism issue. It should be noted that while California’s agricultural central valley, where Salinas is located, delivered between 60 and 80% of its votes to FDR in all of his elections to the presidency.

Is this the “FDR roots” the Democratic party should be returning to?

Defenders of this line of argument and that of the canonization of FDR will say that I’m taking things out of context. What AOC is really saying, they will argue, is that just like social security is a government program that covers everyone, so should universal health care be a government program that covers everyone.

There is a historical problem with that line of argument. The version of Social Security FDR signed into law excluded two-thirds of black workers and a quarter of white ones. It wasn’t until 1954, under a Republican president by the name of Dwight D. Eisenhower, incidentally also the man responsible for enforcing the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate public schools, that Social Security was expanded to include everyone. Ira Katznelson demonstrates in his book, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, that Social Security for everyone would never have passed without support from southern Democrats, whose support was gained after the bill was tweaked - some might say compromised (!) - to exclude farmworkers and maids, amounting to two out of three black workers at the time.

The government hired its own historian, Larry DeWitt, to write a more benign version of this racist history of social security. DeWitt concluded that black workers weren’t excluded for their race but because it was not “administratively feasible” to collect taxes from their employers. According to the government historian, Social Security, as signed into law by FDR, wasn’t meant to be racist, it just ended up that way in effect.

Oh. I think that makes it better, don’t you?

After all, this is the classic go-to argument for present day racists attempting to take away voting rights. Voter ID laws (and arbitrarily deciding what counts as an ID), voter list purges, cutting down on early voting days, and shrinking the number of polling places and voting machines in precincts used by people of color, they tell us is not intended to be racist; it just ends up that way.

This is to say nothing of the fact that Franklin Roosevelt presided over a country - and a Democratic party - that was deeply and institutionally racist. Dixicrats were still Democrats back at the time of FDR, and the realignment of the parties that gave them their present form did not come until the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. During FDR’s reign, legal segregation and Jim Crow reigned in the South, and de facto segregation ruled the northern and western states. Even workers in the Works Progress Administration were segregated by race, and the South hardly saw any black supervisors. Incidentally, the WPA serves as yet another model of “progressive” utopia.

Let me state this as clearly as I can. The “FDR roots” of the Democratic party are the roots of western white farmers who gleefully supported Japanese American internment camps and southern white segregationists who celebrated Jim Crow. No one should be interested in going back to those roots.

None of this is an indictment of the idea of Medicare for All (in one form or another). None of this is an indictment of strengthening social security and other public safety net programs. But as we sit here today rightly disgusted at white Democratic politicians revealed to have appeared in blackface in the 1980s, the race-based imprisonment and segregation from leaders in the 1930s should at least give self-proclaimed progressives pause before demanding that the Democratic party of today return to those… “roots”. As we correctly demand that anyone supporting a leader with blackface in the ‘80s be required to explain themselves, what should we expect of people extolling the virtues of a presidency that locked up American citizens based on nothing more than their heritage?