Kimberley S. Johnson’s recent article, “Racial Orders, Congress, and the Agricultural Welfare State, 1865-1940,” is part of a valuable turn evident in recent scholarship on governance in the twentieth century. Bringing together politics and race to understand agricultural policies and institutions, Johnson asks, “[w]hen does race matter; and how does race matter when thinking about the shaping of the American state?” (P. 144) The answer? Race has shaped agricultural policy in some surprising and not-so-surprising ways.
In her study of the “agricultural welfare state,” Johnson examines the shifting ways in which the federal government provided farmers with services and subsidies in the decades following the Civil War. Responding to scholarship centered on interest group relations and partisan politics, Johnson stresses the importance of considering the political machinations involved in agricultural policy in the specific historical context in which these programs were designed and implemented. She describes in detail the numerous agricultural programs that came out of Congress in the years before the New Deal, and examines how their design and implementation occurred against a backdrop of legalized white supremacy in the rural South. The segregated nature of Southern agriculture combined with the power of Southern Democrats in Congress meant that national agricultural programs reflected the assumptions and preferences of powerful southern interests in maintaining racial hierarchies and allowed local authorities significant discretion in the distribution of assistance. Although the federal government consistently acknowledged its role in protecting farmers from economic dislocation, racial calculations, she argues, destroyed early on any possibility that the federal government would establish universal agricultural benefits as a matter of right.
While this part of her story is not a surprise to readers familiar with scholarship on social welfare programs, she pushes further to demonstrate how the design of these early agricultural programs constrained the options available to Congress and the USDA in shaping later ones. As the USDA learned to work with American farmers and implement agricultural programs, it gained experience doing so through a bifurcated system of benefits that privileged white farmers over African American ones and wealthy farmers over poorer ones. Although membership in each tier varied over time, the two-tiered model remained constant. As Southern Democrats’ power waxed and waned, and as agricultural services gave way to subsidies, more powerful farming interests turned this localism to their advantage and pushed to include themselves in the preferred class of recipients.
By the New Deal, then, “an administrative structure created to partially govern on the basis of race became an important tool by which to govern on the basis of class and land-tenure status.” (P. 145) The New Deal’s expansive programs were built on the foundations of these older ones and adopted the bifurcated model. Rather than rebuilding the agricultural state or rethinking its design, New Dealers aimed certain programs at wealthier landowners while using others to target poorer tenant farmers. Relying on these previously established structures, she argues, meant that “any inequality established at the beginning became cumulative in scope.” (P. 161)
Johnson’s contributions are several. First, it is apparent how much is gained from looking at policies in their historical context. Broadening the frame beyond the parties directly involved in policy creation offers readers a richer and more complicated narrative about agricultural policy that indicates how closely tied these decisions were to other areas of policy and practice. At the same time, taking racial policy seriously as an influence opens up opportunities to rethink the development of economic regulation more generally. The Interstate Commerce Commission and the Federal Trade Commission both came of age during the period Johnson describes, and the Federal Communications Commission, Maritime Commission, and Civilian Aeronautics Board were not far behind. Examining how contemporary racial orders influenced policy and institutional development in each would greatly enrich our understanding of the modern state.
Finally, it is clear that these observations tell us much about the American state as a whole. As Johnson argues, this “agricultural welfare state” was “America’s first welfare state” (P. 144) and benefits from the kinds of analysis scholars like Ira Katznelson, Robert Lieberman, Linda Gordon, and Suzanne Mettler have applied to social welfare programs like those established by the Social Security Act and the GI Bill. In a variety of areas, deference to local power was built into federal policy in order to entrench the racial and gender status quo. The administration of policies is, these studies demonstrate, as important as the policies themselves; at the same time, scholarship on path dependence makes clear that governance decisions lock in policies and limit future choices. As Johnson makes clear, the USDA offers a remarkable place to see these ideas play out.