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.