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Opinion | The New New Deal and Old Pitfalls - The New York Times
The New New Deal and Old Pitfalls
Charles M. Blow
The New York Times
President Biden’s grand plan to deliver a new New Deal that will “build back better,” transform American infrastructure and bounce the country back from the pandemic moved one step closer to reality this week when the Senate, with bipartisan support, approved the $1 trillion infrastructure bill.
The bill’s price tag is a bit of false advertising; nearly half of the money is previously approved funding. Still, the $550 billion in new spending is nothing to sneeze at. It would be a huge investment in this country, particularly if the Democrats can follow through with a second infusion of money this fall, when they pass their budget.
But as Biden seeks to anoint himself the next Franklin Roosevelt, we should note that there are some pitfalls that the 32nd president either wouldn’t or couldn’t avoid and that Biden may be dangerously close to repeating.
There is no doubt that the New Deal — a series of programs, public works projects, financial reforms and regulations enacted from 1933 to 1939 — transformed this country. There is also no doubt that Black people were betrayed, as racist lawmakers used many of the New Deal’s programs to uphold Jim Crow rather than to dismantle it.
As the Rockefeller Foundation pointed out, once those programs were up and running, they systematically excluded Black and brown workers, most of whom couldn’t receive Social Security benefits or the full protection of the new labor laws. The Federal Housing Administration and Home Owners Loan Corporation often refused to give Black and brown families loans, effectively entrenching segregation across the South.
Of course, some Black people did benefit, and Roosevelt’s relief programs made him popular with many, but those benefits were incidental rather than targeted.
As PBS put it, Roosevelt “shied away from aggressively promoting civil rights” for fear of alienating Southern whites.
At the time, Roosevelt was under pressure to back a federal law banning lynching. His wife supported the measure. But he made the strategic choice not to. As he told Walter White, the leader of the NAACP, in 1934, if he backed the bill, Southern Democrats would “block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take the risk.”
It would be late in his presidency, after most of his New Deal legislation was passed, that Roosevelt came to support fair employment policies for Black workers and anti-lynching laws. It was his effort to shore up Black support.
So much of this brings Biden to mind. I am particularly concerned that the Senate went into recess without moving forward on voting rights. I am also concerned that opponents of filibuster reform will point to the bipartisan support for infrastructure as proof that the Senate isn’t broken and the rules don’t need to be altered to pass voter protections.
Furthermore, much of the funding in the infrastructure bill will likely need to be funneled to states, and even if the bill is passed, it could be years before workers break ground on many of these projects. That work could — and will likely — extend well beyond the Biden administration.
Funds through laws sloppily written during one administration can be commandeered and diverted during another. As LawFare reported, a month before leaving office, President Barack Obama signed a nearly 1,000-page bill giving the secretary of defense authority to build “roads and fences” and install “lighting to block drug smuggling corridors” into the United States. This was meant to combat a societal ill. But President Donald Trump used this language to siphon off $2.5 billion to fund his border wall, a monument to hate and xenophobia. The Trump administration was sued over this, but the Supreme Court affirmed his right to do it.
Most Black people in America still live in Southern states, now controlled by Republicans. The oversight and regulatory mechanisms for Biden’s infrastructure package will need to be bulletproof to prevent Republican lawmakers from abusing the funding or directing it away from its intended targets: Biden designed his infrastructure plan to help undo discrimination. As the White House put it in a statement, the bipartisan bill will address “economic disparities in our economy and the consequences of decades of disinvestment in America’s infrastructure that have fallen most heavily on communities of color,” investing in jobs, affordable internet, reliable public transit, clean drinking water and “other resources to ensure communities of color get a fair shot at the American dream.”
Those are good goals, worth striving for, but not even that is worth losing momentum in the fight to protect the rights of Black and brown people to vote. Public works are great. Job creation is great. But if you are left disenfranchised, you are exposed and in danger. It would be a devil’s bargain. In the end, you would still be vulnerable to being offered up for the flaying."