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The limitations of racial democracy: The politics of the Chicago Urban League, 1916-1940

Preston Howard Smith, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This study is an examination of the social basis of the Chicago Urban League's politics from its origins to the eve of World War II. The League is an interracial organization with a black professional staff serving a black clientele. It sought to mitigate against the hardships caused by the dislocations of internal migration and settlement of black Southerners. While it is hard to argue against the ministration of black material needs, the process of coordination implied a socialization that needs more explicit examination. The basic thesis of the study is that the Urban League actively sought to "remake" the migrant in the organization's effort to engineer race relations in Chicago. In Chapter One, I provide a social and intellectual backdrop to origins of the Chicago branch of the National Urban League during the Great Migration and the nascent growth of an administrative state and corporate economy. The League's officials overstated the helplessness of Southern black migrants in order to legitimize its role as interpreter of their needs. In Chapter Two, I discuss the Chicago Urban League's policy on strikebreaking and unionization as an attempt to evaluate their congruence with black workers' interests. I find a complex and uneven record with regard to supporting black labor activity during this time period. The organizations' efforts to socialize black newcomers both at the workplace and at home was more a testimony to a division of interests. The League sought to organize neighborhoods and communities, and spoke in terms of a unitary black community, masking ambiguous but nonetheless real social divisions. In Chapter Three, I examine the rationale and methods of race relations engineering. The attempt at engineering was not necessarily a success, but its attempt was anti-democratic in conception and practice. The omnipresent notion of "adjustment" suggested the manipulation of social policy by black and white social technicians in the name of serving black migrants. In conclusion, I argue that racial democracy narrowly conceived as racial parity limited the Urban League's social horizons and ignored the real structure of racial inequality in the United States. (Abstract shortened with permission of author.)

Subject Area

Political science|Black history|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Smith, Preston Howard, "The limitations of racial democracy: The politics of the Chicago Urban League, 1916-1940" (1990). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9035403.