America of the twentieth century experienced many drastic events. The two World Wars and economic crises were challenges the country managed to overcome. The multinational USA with lots of racial and ethnic groups formed its legislative basis equal and fair for everybody and directed its activity at prosperity. The lessons of the Great Depression and post-war crises strengthened American society and allowed women to assert themselves not only as mothers but also as workers equal to men. The Social Security Act and organized labor with the War Effort established the grounds for the creation of the middle class. As to ethnic minorities, court cases and laws demonstrated increasing discrimination against the blacks, but the liberal mentality of Americans made them stop violence against other races. The American legislative and social system created equal rights for everybody regardless of one’s religion, race, sex, and social status through a flexible tax system, health security and social welfare provided to the unemployed. Such measures helped keep the country out of an economic crisis and reduce unemployment.
The Historical Context of the Twentieth Century and Its Impact on the Middle Class and African Americans
The beginning of the twentieth century in the USA marked a new era of economic social and political development of the country. At that time, America became stronger and strengthened its position when Britain and Spain could not maintain the colonial policy, and many countries became independent. After the end of World War I, America managed to recover and become a highly developed country. The cancellation of the Treaty of Versailles marked the USA as an isolated country. It was the decade of the prohibition and woman suffrage movement, which ended in establishing necessary legislative norms in 1920. The Teapot Dome scandal showed Harding’s administration as the one involved in favoritism and bribery. However, the 1920s initiated the development of business, industrialization and became years of prosperity and mass culture in America. The weakening of sexual restraint and the availability of extra money among the youth gave birth to the boom of fashion and jazz, and the period became known as the Jazz Age. The middle class of that time formed itself due to growing industrialization. Nevertheless, African Americans were rather poor and worked in farms. They still felt the slavery imprint in their minds, and most whites viewed them as a lower race. Poverty made them migrate in 1925-1930 from the South to the North, and it became known as Great Migration. After that, large residential districts, like Harlem in New York, developed in the North. Still, many blacks could not afford to pay for their housing. They lived separately from the whites in less prestigious blocks and met in special houses where they paid an entrance fee in exchange for alcohol, food and listening to blues singers. Such concerts initiated the development of black music. Unlike the blacks, the middle class consisted mostly of the whites. The boom and prosperity, as well as greater sexual freedom and the equality of men and women, became their leading ideas. The youth as a social layer understood that one could gain a material reward from work and individual achievements.
In the years of the Great Depression, the middle class experienced many difficulties. They lost houses and savings. Pecuniary and psychic problems arousing after that influenced their sense of identity. Many representatives feared that the Great Depression could provoke a class revolution. Poorer people got under the impact of the period first. Those affected later had their jobs, but wages dropped to 60%. Their consciousness changed to more competitive. They understood that many young people who could work did not have jobs, so their success and way to the American Dream were in their own hands. Students and scientists from the middle class formed symbiotic relationships and changed the conception of the American society being taking all for granted. Although the authorities convinced people that changes would come into action, representatives of the middle class acted on their own. To raise the economy of the country, F. D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935, which was part of the New Deal program constructed by the President. It was a groundbreaking measure taken to ensure proper living standards to retired people aged 65 and more. The Act did not only anticipate health insurance for veterans, but also for the employed. The unemployment benefit also was under this act. The Great Depression altered the viewpoint of the American authorities on financial processes. Therefore, they constructed the Act based on payroll taxed from startup costs. The system of benefits for veterans, widows, and orphans after the Civil War was similar to conceptions of social security.
The blacks also suffered during the Great Depression. Most musicians became unemployed because many theaters closed. Since the African Americans had difficulties in getting profits, the Depression influenced them greatly. There existed a firm distinction between the black and the white working classes. The former often called the latter “white trash”. Differences in “white collar” and “blue collar” work were noticeable among middle-class workers. They represented people moving vertically upwards from the lower social status. An outstanding example of racial discrimination and a court mistake became the Scottsboro case of 1931. The court charged nine young African American boys with raping two white women, Ruby Bates, and Victoria Price. According to the laws of that time, the anticipated punishment for raping white women was the death penalty. The court sentenced eight boys to death. Since the youngest of them, Leroy Wright was thirteen, the jury considered his case separately and sentenced him to live imprisonment. The women were under pressure and provided false accusations. Due to the efforts of the American Communist Party and International Labor Defense (ILD), all boys managed to avoid the death penalty. Still, it took twenty years to free the last participant of the case. Therefore, the mentality of all Americans was formed during the abolition and suffrage movement and influenced their world outlook. Poverty caused by the Depression in spite of racial differences made them rebel and restore their material status. Although music and drama of that time showed progressive thinking and optimism, it remained difficult to explain how they managed to overcome poverty. The period from 1935 to 1936 was marked with more economic stability. Only two-thirds of families received less than $1,500 per year. The percentage of wealthier people rose from 25.2% to 28%. The New Deal did not have a necessary effect on the complete recovery of both whites and blacks and representatives of the middle class, but it managed to provide the stability of the economy.
World War II caused another economic crisis connected with racial perception and the middle class. Military expenses were not in the plan of the New Deal, and the government had to redistribute taxes. The weakening of the economic condition of plants led to their selling, and costs came to the treasury. It became a source of capital investments during 1940-1943, and two-thirds of the costs were directed at military needs. Managers and owners had high personal taxes. In this situation, middle-class representatives experienced more difficulties under the pressure of underpayment. African Americans had more hardships considering their discrimination. As soldiers, they were people of a lower sort. Commanders considered their labor “unskilled”. Moreover, since most men participated in the war, women started to work. They took the role of moneymakers during WWII and built American society bringing up the future generation. Hitler mocked at the Americans for involving their women in military actions and work. 350,000 women served in the armed forces at home and abroad forming Women’s Army Corps. Some of them were trained as air pilots serving as flying targets. Sixteen women were killed in military operations because of a direct fire attack, and sixty-eight servicewomen were captured. Due to benefit programs, like G. I. Bill, women encountered roadblocks. The Bill, known as Servicemen Readjustment Act passed in 1944, enabled unprecedented veterans to attend colleges, universities and “postsecondary” institutions. It anticipated flexible financial support provided to those willing to get educated after the war. Its enforcement enabled and motivated more people to gain education and get a fair payment for qualified work. As a result, the period coming in 1945 marked the rapid development of education. It also happened due to economic recovery after the war since more citizens could afford higher education. Organized labor during WWII also created the basis for further recovery after the war and made the USA a profitable state. The Wagner Act enabled the labor force to organize and bargain collectively with the management. It also gave the ground for CIO, the largest industrial union. The Fair Labor Standard Act of 1938 established a minimum wage, approved forty-four-hour workweek and abolished child labor. President Roosevelt was sympathetic to labor and created fair conditions for each person to work. Labor unions used their force to increase salaries, improve working conditions and establish job security. When the management did not meet their demands, their primary right was a strike. As the state had industries necessary in the wartime period, strikes created obstacles for the correct governing of the country and meeting the needs of soldiers. That is why, organized labor weakened the War Effort, and the government passed the laws to suppress strikes.
The rights of African Americans were rather suppressed too. In most cases, they experienced violent racism, which went out of the frames of civil rights. That is why African Americans, Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, created the Black Panther Party (BPP) to struggle against unfair cruelty, which was the sign of imperialism. The party held street rallies and used radical methods responding to the same violence of the whites. They also inspired Berkley students in California (UBC) to initiate the free speech movement. They also combined the movement of sexual minorities and the anti-Vietnam war movement. The Panthers represented their community within the American society as a colony, and the police were intruders. In spite of repressions and the arrest of Huey Newton accused of allegedly murdering a police officer, BPP continued their program more actively. They manage to unite their ideology in a profound anti-war movement, which also inspired the blacks who participated in the war in Vietnam. The arrest of Jack Goldberg in the context of social inequality also strengthened protests against racial and gender discrimination against both heterosexuals and bisexuals. It contributed to the profound social activity directed at the liquidation of illegal measures of cruelty against minorities.
The events of the twentieth century made profound social changes in the lives of both middle-class members and racial minorities. Improvements resulting from the Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Social Security Act promoted the welfare system, representing the unemployment benefit, amount of working hours and proper taxation to eradicate poverty after the war and recover from the Great Depression. The development of the education sphere helped to shape the middle class and approve it as the basis of social formation. In spite of the effective legislation, African Americans had experienced discrimination since the beginning of the previous century. Their labor was underestimated, and policemen committed violence against them. Still, their activity provided the basis for the formation of protests against military actions in Vietnam, admitted as acts of cruelty by the whole world.