When Affirmative Action Was White

In When Affirmative Action Was White, Ira Katznelson contends that the modern economic disparities between black and white Americans were fueled more by New Deal era policies than by the long standing American tradition of white supremacy. New deal and fair deal policies, such as Social Security, Labor Reform, and the GI Bill of Rights, were written in ways which allowed for the outwardly colorblind laws to be administered in traditional, segregated fashion. This selective administration of progressive policies allowed for members of the white middle class to increase their socioeconomic status at a tremendous pace while blacks remained shackled in poverty. The differences in opportunities allowed for the socioeconomic gap between whites and blacks to grow at an accelerated rate. Taking this historical perspective into account, Katznelson further argues that present-day affirmative action was not a new social policy devised as a result of the civil rights era; it was a redirection of affirmative action policies already in existence that had favored whites from the 1930s through the 1960s.

When New Deal programs were being formulated the Roosevelt Administration had to get support for the radical legislation by pulling together groups with diverse interests. One of the groups whose support was required to pass the legislation was the Southern Democrats. The South had been solidly Democratic since President Lincoln, and this consistency led them to hold control of committees which were key to maintaining Jim Crow laws. These factors gave the Southern Democrats outsized control of the New Deal legislation, and they used that control to ensure that the social order they were accustomed to would be maintained. Their strategy was ensuring that federal programs be administered locally rather than at the federal level; due to the scale of the proposed legislation it was an easy concession to garner. Once local administration was ensured, the Southern Democrats could allow for the passage of legislation that was not explicitly discriminatory yet would result in the outcomes that preserved existing Southern social order.

Discriminatory outcomes can be clearly seen as a result of seemingly innocuous intent was the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 or, as it is commonly know, the GI Bill of Rights. One of the GI Bill’s main supporters was John Rankin of Mississippi; he was eager to funnel federal funds into his poor state, as long as segregation would not be affected. To this end he made sure that the bill did not place any restrictions on local businesses that would require them to violate “long standing customs” (p.136) and accept all veterans equally. White vocational school proprietors in the South were disinclined to admit black students. Since Mississippi would not approve many vocational schools run by blacks, the effect was that blacks were restricted from using the GI Bill to attend vocational schools in Mississippi. An African American minister from Mississippi at the time told Ohio Senator Taft that, “State committees appointed by Southern governors to control these schools start off with the determination that Negro soldiers shall not be trained under this bill, and they never let up.” (p. 129)

The North was no bastion of equality either; informal segregation meant that few blacks were admitted into Northern or Western colleges. Ninety-five percent of black veterans used their college benefits in the South’s where there were all black institutions. However, the underfunded black universities were unable to keep up with demand for higher education. Southern black colleges turned away fifty-five percent of veterans, versus a turn a way rate of twenty-eight percent for all universities. (p. 132) The black veterans who were admitted to colleges went to universities which had inadequate resources and offered few advanced degrees.

Prior to limiting African American veterans’ access to higher education the Southern Democrats made sure that Southern blacks in general were excluded from Social Security and labor reforms. The South was scantily industrialized when New Deal legislation was originally being debated, so they saw no problem supporting pro-union legislation so long as agricultural and household laborers were excluded. The vast majority of housekeepers and agricultural workers in the South were black. At the onset of the second world war the entire nation, including the South, began to industrialize; the Southern Democrats sought to undermine the rights of organized labor since it might promote civil rights, break down racial divides, and undermine Southern social order.

Farmworkers and domestics were also initially excluded from Social Security. Since Social Security benefits are determined by contributions, even when Republicans changed the laws to allow these professions to contribute, black workers were far behind white workers of similar socioeconomic background. Furthermore, blacks that were eligible for Social Security benefits received less benefits. Systemic wage discrimination meant that they paid less into the system, and years of hard work with little health insurance meant that their life expectancies were shorter than those of comparable white workers.

The unequal administration of Social Security, labor laws, and the GI Bill prior to the civil rights movement are not normally considered when affirmative action is contemporarily discussed. Katznelson clearly demonstrates that white Americans almost exclusively benefited from these programs due to they way they were administered. Contemporary discussions of affirmative action focus on the post civil rights area benefits which were targeted towards African Americans and often veer off into debates about “reverse discrimination.” This presentist approach completely neglects the fact that living people are still suffering due to these past injustices. Purveyors of “reverse discrimination” focus on the implicit rare cases in which white people with higher qualifications are denied access to some program in order to meet diversity quotas, but they neglect countless retired black people who are receiving lower Social Security benefits due to working at a time when black folks wages were repressed by innumerable means. Even Bill Clinton, the “first black president,” overlooked the unequal treatment black people received when he praised the GI Bill for “[raising] the entire nation to a plateau of social well-being never before experienced in U.S. History.” (p.114)

Katznelson’s historiography is an attempt to set this record straight, so in that sense it can be viewed as advocating a bottom up approach to working towards egalitarian principles. On the other hand, Katznelson lays out the case in such a way as to demonstrate that there remains a specific historical grievance for which black affirmative action can be seen as a remedy. When black affirmative action is again tried before the Supreme Court, it is likely that Katznelson’s arguments will be used to demonstrate that modern affirmative action is justifiable as a remedy to the effects of its previous incarnations. In that sense, When Affirmative Action Was White advocates a topdown approach to public policy.

Katznelson successfully presents the case that public policy between the New Deal era and the Civil Rights era amounted to affirmative action for white society, a challenging task since the people shaping those policies consciously hid their intentions from the legal record. Katznelson’s book should be required reading for any policy maker, not just those concerned with the topic of affirmative action.

Originally written March 19, 2012

Published: 2013-09-01