U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Is Double Speak Significant?

Yesterday Andrew wrote about irony in a meta, life-philosophy kind of way. I’d like to write about small i-irony in the way that Tim described in his comment on Andrew’s post–the kind where you expect one thing and get another. In this case, whites engaging in double speak with regard to blacks–saying one thing to their face and another thing behind their back.

I am shopping an article which does several things. One, it resurrects the life and thought of Mabel Byrd, a black internationalist and Communist fellow traveler who was the first black person hired by the National Recovery Administration. She was hired to prove that the NRA was not discriminatory. She thought that meant doing the work of economist to discover how the NRA treated black people. Her supervisors thought that her token appointment was enough to satisfy the calls they’d gotten all summer from black organizations to hire more black people and not discriminate against African Americans in the industry codes they were developing.

The second thing the article does is analyze the language used by Byrd’s superiors during a meeting of the Secretaries of the Interior (Harold Ickes), the Secretary of the Treasury (Frances Perkins), and others. In letters responding to black calls for non-discrimination, the head of the NRA (Hugh Johnson) wrote language that would fit in any human relations manual today–it fit equal opportunity ideas to a tee. Yet, when the cabinet secretaries and NRA director gathered together, they decried black calls for non-discrimination a “clamorous nuisance” and trudged out stereotypes of black people. Mabel Byrd’s train ticket was torn from her (she was headed south to personally investigate the situation of black employees and white employers subject to NRA codes) and she was not allowed to do her job.

I’ve had two reviewers now tell me this is not a significant story, but for two very different reasons. I think the reasons are racialized, but I wonder what you think? The first said that the language of the cabinet was not inflammatory enough to be of interest. The second said that the inflammatory language of the cabinet was so obvious as to be insignificant. Obviously black people would expect to be spoken of one way to their face and another way behind their back. Evidently I wrote in such a way that it came across that I was surprised to find this double speak. I was not surprised, but I was interested in having such racialized language on display–and this is the important part–by self-confessed racial liberals, or interracialists to use the parlance of the day. Or, in Perkins case, at least people who did not consider themselves racist. I think this is important, at least in part, because I think white people do this today–think of themselves as liberal and progressive on race, while speaking in stereotypes when they are in a whites-only space. Unfortunately, I tried to be clever and claimed that the white cabinet members used the “race card” long before any African American would have the cause or ability to. This was taken as presentist (rightly so, I guess), but also strangely the reviewer criticized me for saying that an African American would play the race card.

The other major criticism I had from both reviewers was again at opposite ends of the spectrum–the first said I had way too much Mabel Byrd and the second said that I had way too little.

What’s next? What do I do with this article? Clearly I haven’t found the right journal yet. But I’m not sure that the illusive “fit” is the only problem I have. Part of the problem is finding the right thesis. Is this a story about Mabel Byrd? But can I tell Byrd’s story without analyzing the transcript of the cabinet meeting? If I do that, then I need to have significant knowledge of all these New Deal folks, each of which has been the subject of many books. I’ve boned up on New Deal literature, but I haven’t satisfied the reviewers yet.

Part of my problem is that I made what I am increasingly thinking was a misstatement. I claimed that the language of equal opportunity that Johnson trotted out in response to black protests was the first time that politicians used such language to placate blacks (or rather that the New Deal represented the first time in general). I didn’t have enough evidence to prove the “first” part, but I was going off the premise that the New Deal represents the first time that blacks had significant power in a presidential election because of their recent move north. Most books, including this one, speak about equal opportunity language being invented after the Civil Rights Act. I’m not familiar enough with presidential politics to make the “first” claim. I’ve remembered recently that Rayford Logan’s famous The Betrayal of the Negro discusses empty presidential promises to blacks in the period after Reconstruction and before the New Deal. So I have some more research to do. But I’m not convinced this is the central reason that these two journals rejected this article.

In a speech in front of WILPF, Byrd criticized pacifists for demanding that African Americans act peacefully instead of protesting. She said that conciliation would only support white supremacy until whites acknowledged their own privilege. In this speech, she foresaw exactly what happened to her when she tried to work for the government–the NRA hired her because blacks protested, but the NRA did not know how to work with her, or allow her the space to do the job they hired her to do, because white administrators still lived inside white privilege. Many whites who do not personally engage in quote-unquote “racist” behavior, who think of themselves as good people, have an extremely difficult time admitting their privilege. I’ve seen it in my friends and in my students. To me, this is an important story. But the first journal, a mainstream one, did not find it convincing and the second journal, a primarily black one, found it too obvious.

Where do I go now? Any suggestions?

Then again, maybe I failed to tell the story I thought I was telling (hence the Summer Blues of last week). Here’s the abstract so you can help me figure out where the problem lies:

New Deal administrators felt compelled to hire black employees because of the loud and persistent calls of black individuals and organizations for representation, but that did not mean they knew how to work with their new recruits. Many of these administrators consistently espoused the New Deal line of non-discrimination, but they had also not thought about the specific steps it would take to realize that policy; they had never thought of the particular needs of a black employee or how they should listen to him or her. By looking at a particular episode in 1933—The Byrd Affair—this article shows how the attitudes of New Deal Cabinet members toward race evolved in the early days of their administration. This episode revolved around Mabel Byrd, a dynamic black economist with a proven research record for the League of Nations and the Rosenwald Fund. When she arrived in DC in 1933, the National Recovery Administration refused to give her the tools or authority to accomplish the goal for which they hired her. African American organizations refused to partner with her because she was a woman or because she was seen as a sell-out by joining the government.

It is generally argued that before there was a “black cabinet,” white cabinet members ignored race because blacks did not have political power and because any effort on their part could jeopardize southern support. It is not surprising that black Americans faced severe disadvantages in lobbying the New Deal administration. What is surprising is that the Byrd Affair showcases cabinet members discussing a single black employee in particular and racial issues in general. What is informative is the language administrators used while in a white-only room versus that in which they couched their words while speaking with African Americans. In the same room as blacks, liberal whites danced around the issues and promised no discrimination, but they felt free to talk bluntly and cynically, indulging in stereotypes, when pale faces composed the whole audience. My article details the steps that New Deal administrators initially missed when trying to live up to their promise not to discriminate against any one with regard to race, creed, or color. It also indicates where black agitation was successful and where black unity fell apart.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lauren:

    For what it’s worth, I’d say that getting two completely opposite sets of reviews means that, on the one hand, you can’t put too much stock in either one. On the other, though, something about this article clearly isn’t working the way you want it to. My recommendation would be to take whatever you think is relevant from those reviews, based on your own judgment, and then just forget about them. Don’t even bother trying to figure out which one is right. The article might need another draft to emphasize why the story is important, because it sounds like both reviewers seemed to agree (for different reasons) that the story struck them as not important. Speaking for myself, though, I don’t study African-American history and I think the events you relate sound interesting and important, so I suspect that others would do.

    It seems very likely to me that you just got unlucky with your reviewers. That does happen sometimes. My uninformed hunch is that you might just need to get it in front of more receptive reviewers at a more receptive journal.

    I’ve published two articles in my life, so I do not claim to be an expert. But I shopped the second one a lot, because it got rejected a lot. Where I finally got it placed is by far my favorite choice, and the revisions urged upon me by that journal made it much better. I do find that the luck of the draw with journals, readers, audience, etc. do make a huge difference. The quality of the article is not the only variable, and I don’t think you should be discouraged. This is all just part of the long, dreary process of publishing an academic article.


    • Thanks for the encouragement! A friend on facebook suggested dropping most of the New Deal portion of the article and focus instead on Mabel Byrd’s connections with the Communist Party. I may do that, but I still need to find the right journal.

  2. Dear Lauren,

    I hope this isn’t too obvious or silly advice, but for me, I always found the easiest way to make a case for your research’s importance is to forefront the historiography. Often times, I put my historiography in the 1st and 2nd paragraph, so my readers are oriented to my intervention. Therefore, everything going forward makes much more sense!


    • Building on Dan’s point, I would argue that a zippy title with presentist cache helps—e.g. “The First Affirmative Action Cabinet Member: The Byrd Affair, Blacks, and the New Deal,” or something like that.

      Also, on a related note, I front in my abstracts the deepest, most controversial issue on which my paper touches—philosophical, social, political, or whatever. You do this, but you might need to use more controversial terminology. In this case, it appears that affirmative action is one possibility.

      Finally, if I may be bold, ask yourself what element of historical thinking does your paper most thoroughly address: causation, context, change over time, avoiding the mistakes of the past, etc. Historians too like to see how an exploration of history carries with it some application to the present—some, dare I say it (and I don’t hazard the following term lightly), *relevance*? In other words, tell them WHY you are telling THIS story for THEIR journal.

      I say all of this as a reminder to myself while I’m toiling away on my MSS chapters. I apologize for any air of condescension the comment may convey. – TL

    • As Mike said, sometimes you have to make sense of apparent nonsense. Sometimes that means threading a needle or splitting the middle, and other times it might mean a big revise and resubmit.

      Please note I offered all of my big picture comments somewhat blind—without having read your paper and taking your abstract at its word.

      FWIW: One of my old Loyola professors thinks it’s harder to get articles published in quality journals than to obtain a book contract. – TL

  3. I just wish the reviewer had asked if I had more Mabel Byrd, especially if that was one of their main concerns. I have 50+ pages of Byrd before The Byrd Affair.

    Now I guess I should figure out how to transform those two things (Byrd as adolescent, Harlem Renaissance figure, black internationalist, and communist fellow traveler + Byrd Affair) into an article.

  4. I so admire Frances Perkins that I’d hate to hear her doing something negative here.

    Yet the racism of this era is so pervasive that it’s possible.

  5. Lauren: Thanks for sharing this with us. Peer review is a process that helps us all grow and write better history, but like most things that make us stronger, it can also be painful.

    The first thing I noticed when reading your post is the repeated use of the term “inflammatory language” (which does sound somewhat presentist to me). Based on what I have read, I guess that you have more significant things to say than whether or not some 1930s New Dealers used racist language. However, you may not be getting that across to your readers. I think you are right to avoid the “this was the first time” argument, which is a relatively weak one. Rather, think big questions: What does your story tell us about ideas of race within the New Deal? What does it tell us about changing ideas of racial (in)equality in the workplace? Does it shed light onto the intellectual origins of affirmative action? Is this just a story about Mabel Byrd–of whom most of us know little or nothing–or is her story a window that sheds light onto some other, larger historical transformation? Perhaps if you shift attention from the racist language itself to the assumptions (likely unquestioned by those who held them) that the language reflected, then you might be able to craft a stronger, more readily significant article.

    In my experience, the biggest thing you need to do in order to get a piece past peer reviewers is to make ONE clear and significant argument, and don’t say anything that allows your readers to think that you are making a different, less significant argument. Reviewers are supposed to be critical, but they are also busy people, so sometimes they are tempted to misread your piece, or to read it only superficially, because it is quicker and easier to be critical that way. It is possible that your reviewers may have knocked down a straw man that you unwittingly set up for superficial readers. (This happened to me before; it sucked!)

    Other than making the significance of your piece clear, another tip is to read both reviews and try to figure out what the readers DON’T understand about your argument. Then be sure to explicitly state (or restate more thoroughly) that thing that they didn’t quite see or grasp. It could just be that you are not saying something as clearly as you thought you were. Or you might need to reframe your argument to make its significance clearer.

    This is all just an educated guess, albeit one based on my own four successful runs through the peer-review meat grinder (as well as a couple of unsuccessful attempts that shall remain unmentioned). To say anything more substantial, I would have to read the piece itself, which I would be happy to do if you like. In any case, good luck revising!

  6. Hi Lauren,

    In addition to hat people have said above, I think it might be worthwhile to emphasize the white privilege aspect a bit more. I think that most people commonly assume that just about every white person before 1960 was at least subconsciously racist, if not out-and-out racist. So it wouldn’t be especially surprising to hear that a bunch of white cabinet members spoke in racist terms about a black person, or even that they were being duplicitous, speaking as though they cared about civil rights when really they just wanted a token to placate black people. Such cynical behavior is exactly what we would expect racists to do (and also politicians, for that manner). Put differently, if one consciously believes that black people are inferior, then outright lying to black people becomes expected behavior.

    However, I think that the story becomes more interesting if you can play up the fact that many of these cabinet members believed themselves to be crusaders for civil rights, racial justice, etc. And the more disconnect that you can show here, the better. For example (and I’ll disclaim here that I’m a European historian, so I’m not very familiar with these figures), did some of the cabinet members express the opinion—in a private source, such as a diary—that black people were truly equal to white people, and not merely that black people ought to have it better than they currently had it? From the other direction, is the racialized language that you’ve found them using merely a sort of frustration that “those people” weren’t being properly appreciative of what the cabinets members were trying to do, or was it more blatant dismissal of black people in general? (Obviously the two can blend into each other, but I think that there’s an important difference between them.) Similarly, were there members of the cabinet who didn’t claim to be interested in racial justice? If so, is the language that they use in these discussions significantly different from the language that the supposed interracialists used? And if a difference exists, what is the character of that difference?

    I think that playing up the cognitive difference element here makes the argument more interesting; now when people read through it in 5-10 minutes, the message they’ll get is not “people in the past were racist!” but rather “no, seriously, even those who tried to eliminate racial injustice and consciously believed themselves to be free from prejudice still thought in strikingly racialized terms.” And doing that would be another way of getting at some of those big issues that Brian mentioned in his post above mine.

    I hope this helps. You’re obviously tuned into the issue already (since you explicitly mentioned it), but, based on your description, it sounds like this cognitive dissonance aspect (which is really the heart of white privilege) perhaps wasn’t quite so emphasized in the original draft. Personally, I think that the perspective of racism as a world-view rather than a consciously elaborated set of ideas is always worth explicating.

    Of course, my suggestion would turn this into much more of a paper about the white cabinet members and less about Byrd, which is perhaps problematic in its own right… ahh, the joys of selection!

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