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The Culture of Poverty in America During The Great Depression

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The Great Depression is remembered as a time of universal destitution and hardship. Millions in extreme poverty and the entire nation in ruins economically, politically, and socially. However, as always in U.S. history minoritized groups were hit the hardest, unveiling America’s indelible racist roots. The culture of poverty during the Great Depression in many ways revealed the true colors of America. Minoritized groups, who were already living in poverty, were subject to racial aggression activated in part by the anxieties unleashed due to the economic catastrophe. Such hostilities and the subsequent redistribution of jobs created a racially based culture of poverty. Furthermore, the racially charged political rhetoric during this time increased the hardship experienced by people of color. Poverty during the Great Depression was disproportionately experienced by underprivileged demographic groups, revealing the racial inequality and hostility that was embedded in America.

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The anxiety induced by the Great Depression amplified race-based discrimination towards minority groups, who were already mired in abject poverty. The economic collapse was devastating for all workers, however minority groups such as African Americans suffered more than their fellow white citizens. They were forced out of jobs previously scorned by whites. A rise in lynchings occured. They were the first fired and the last hired (Phillips-Fein). While adversity was nothing new for African Americans, the Great Depression only intensified racial subjugation. Just a couple generations earlier slavery had been abolished, and throughout the early twentieth century Jim Crow laws were pervasive. But the economic collapse gave rise to a newfound racism towards African Americans in the 1930’s, and the idea that people of color were inferior became increasingly popular. As stated by Trotter, in 1932 the black unemployment rate was up to seventy-five percent in some areas. This was significantly higher than the white unemployment rate, which was thirty percent. Moreover, wages for black workers were thirty percent below whites, even for those living below subsistence prior to the Depression (Trotter). An already slim job market for blacks diminished at the wake of the crash demonstrating the deeply embedded systemic racism in America. Blacks, who were already at a disadvantage were tied down further with lower wages and employment, resulting in higher levels of poverty within the African American community. Thus, there is a direct correlation between racism, discrimination, and poverty during the Great Depression.

A redistribution of jobs ensued, fueling the flames of racial aggression towards minoritized groups. Prior to the depression, African and Mexican-Americans filled the need for unskilled labor. Low income and deplorable working conditions had already placed them at a disadvantage, however with the onset of the economic decline there was fierce competition for every job. As a result, black and Latino groups were pushed out of work, leaving the majority of them unemployed as Whites took whatever they could get. For instance in many southern cities, white workers rallied with racially charged slogans such as “No Jobs for Niggers Until Every White Man Has a Job” and “Niggers, back to the cotton fields—city jobs are for white folks (Trotter). Such racial abuse contributed to job redistribution which favored white workers, pushing the black community further down the economic ladder. In addition, the southern railroads witnessed the worst excess of race based violence. Organized white brotherhoods attacked, intimidated, and murdered black firemen so they could assume their job positions (Trotter). Although the Thirteenth Amendment had passed almost sixty years prior to the Great Depression, Trotter notes that “The shotgun, the whip, the noose, and Ku Klux Klan practices were being resumed…”(Trotter). Such heinous practices were dangerously close to the brutality of slavery and increased the hardship experienced by blacks during this era. For instance, African American women were forced into “slave markets” where even poor white women employed them for as little as $5 per week for full-time labor (Trotter). This grim reality contributed not only to racial tensions but also heightened poverty among blacks. The redistribution of jobs exposed the deep racism that had always existed in America, but was exacerbated by the economic panic of the Great Depression. The crisis of poverty heightened the underlying racism in America, even spreading to the political discourses of the day.

Racially charged political rhetoric was a more subtle result of the culture of poverty during the 1930’s. High School graduates during the Depression entered a jobless world, and most were not able to seek higher education, because unemployment was a persistent issue. Edward R. Ellis explains solutions to the issue sought by political figures. He describes how the Mississippi governor vowed to deport “12 million blacks and 10 million aliens: more than the actual number of aliens in the nation at the time” (Ellis 171). The governor portrayed the multitude of horrifically racist views among political figures, which contributed to a “growing loss of liberty in America…”(Ellis 183). The high levels of unemployment further fueled racist views that led to a worsened culture of poverty in the black community. Furthermore, during Herbert Hoover’s administration, federal agents and state police led large roundups of Mexican Americans. The horrific realities of this were that “Anyone who looked Mexican, including U.S. citizens of Mexican descent, was picked up and taken into custody during street sweeps”(“Minority Groups”). These mass arrests were made without warrants or any specific reason besides the fact that someone “looked” Mexican. Going door to door, agents would demand papers of Mexican citizens and immigrants. If the accused did not give them the documentation immediately, they would be would be marked as illegal and deported. As intended, these roundups brough upon a climate of fear among Mexican Americans and many immigrants decided to leave the United States in attempt to avoid further harassment. Pictures of Mexican-American families huddled in their homes demonstrate the fear created by such hostility. Unsure of whether or not they would get deported, they sheltered together attempting to protect themselves from the federal government. In addition to such overt aggression, there were also more subtle, shrouded ways in which minoritized groups suffered. For example the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), an act part of Roosevelt’s New Deal was intended to give jobs to young American men. However, at the height of its implementation only eleven percent of its workforce was black. Similarly, the WPA, which also sought to create jobs, had only fifteen percent of it workforce as black (Olen). Unintentional racism is executed here as no person or force directly demanded the underrepresentation, but it was the systemic racism embedded in America that caused it. Poverty for blacks only heightened, as jobs were “reserved” for white men creating an even slimmer window of employment. In addition to underrepresentation, there was also segregation in CCC camps. The racially charged political discourse during the Great Depression intensified hostilities and systemic racism creating a worsened culture of poverty for minoritized groups in America.

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The crisis of the Depression led to widespread poverty throughout the country, however minoritized groups unfairly bore the worst brunt of the hardship. The prevailing systemic racism forced African Americans into further poverty. Horrific acts of racism echoing the nightmares of slavery worsened the lives of blacks who were already out of work due to the redistribution of jobs. Mexican Americans were unjustifiably deported and many immigrants feared for their lives, and while president Roosevelt sought change for the better, America’s ingrained racist roots led to a white majority workforce in New Deal programs. No matter what progressive efforts are made, white communities always seem to have the upper hand even in times of universal hardship. The culture of poverty during the Great Depression not only revealed that inequality and social injustice embedded within American society, but also demonstrated how “…ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have”

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