Tag Archives: Affirmative Action

Black History Month: When Affirmative Action Was White

Ira Katnzelson shows the little-known history of affirmative action.

Ira Katnzelson shows the little-known history of affirmative action.

Below abortion but far ahead of apple pie in its level of controversy, affirmative action has had a curious place in American public conversation since its inception more than 40 years ago.

Proponents see affirmative polices as necessary to redress centuries of wrongdoing by the majority group, while opponents, who arguably have presented their case more effectively, say the very concept of affirmative action contradicts fundamental pledges of equality under the law. 

But supporters and detractors alike may be taking too narrow a view of the subject, if Columbia University professor Ira Katznelson is to believed.

He maintains that, rather than beginnning with President Lyndon Johnson’s famous speech at Howard University in 1965-Katnznelson includes the speech in an appendix-affirmative action actually started decades earlier.

There’s a twist, though.

Katznelson argues that the primary beneficiaries of the early version of these policies were not black people, who are often held up by opponents as unworthy recipients of jobs or college admission, but white people.

He makes his case in an intriguing book, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America.

Katznelson explains that the impetus for the book came from his coming across a document written by W.E.B. DuBois in 1935, the height of New Deal legislation. Yet, far from celebrating the advances black people were experiencing as a result, DuBois struck a critical note.

His curiosity piqued, Katznelson decided to dig further.

He eventually uncovered a fascinating and little-explored history-though, to be fair, he does pay homage to previous historians’ work in the book’s introduction-in which Southern Democrats played a pivotal role, with Republican and Northern Democratic acquiescence, in stopping the unprecedented government largesse from going to black people. 

Instead, the policies actually ended up exacerbating the already yawning inequities between white and black people in the country.

The book opens with Johnson giving his dramatic and enormously well-received speech at Howard before pivoting back several decades to the New Deal.  Katznelson stakes his claim on three major areas: the exclusion of large numbers of black workers from New Deal and Fair Deal benefits; the use of local control to thwart the benefits that were awarded; and an about face on pro-union legislation that gutted advances that had been made there.

The result: more than $100 billion in government spending was disporportionately directed to white, rather than black, people.

Katznelson talks at length about the range of Southern politicians, from the outright racists like Theodore Bilbo to the so-called moderates like Richard Russell to the “liberals” like Johnson.  He makes it clear that, whatever their seeming differences on race issues, they were united by their initial exclusion of domestic and agricultural workers from New Deal legislation-this was a major omission since millions of black people worked in these occupations-and later by their support of anti-union legislation that thwarted AFL and CIO initially successful efforts to make inroads in the black South.

Katnzelson also has a highly interesting chapter about military desegregation-he shares the difficulties venerated historian John Hope Franklin had when trying to enlist to illustrate the situation for black people-and how, once admitted, black soldiers also were denied their fair share of access to benefits under the landmark GI Bill.  Among other items, the bill paved the way for veterans to attend college and purchase homes, both significant aspects of entry to middle-class life.  While Katznelson makes it clear that the bill did in fact benefit many black soldiers, he also shows how large amounts of discrimination occurred in the administration of the legislation.

Local control was a key factor in the perpetuation of affirmative action for white people.  He shows how, even when supported at the federal level, black people often confronted local officials who were hostile to the prospects of their receiving the benefits to which the law entitled them.

Katznelson also makes it clear that the national Southern politicians and local officialis acted with the knowledge and tacit support of other legislators.  He includes a telling section in which Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, who was known for his liberal views on race, did not push his colleagues to make further progress on the issue.  He does the same with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s not forcefully advancing anti-lynching legislation, and strikes an effective balance between showing how politicians thought at the time without excusing the moral consequences of their action.

When Affirmative Action Was White’s final chapter proposes some current approaches to the policy to invigorate and ultimately eliminate the need for its necessity within a generation.  Here Katznelson relies on the doctrine of specific remedies advanced by Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in the 1978 Bakke case.  Although this is by far the book’s least effective section, it does not detract from the work’s overall quality.  

When Affirmative Action Was White is a well-researched revision that provides much-needed context to a complex issue that all too often is reduced to pitting people against each other.