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1 On the Origins of Affirmative Action: Puzzles and Perspectives The years after the Second World War were a time of optimism and confidence for most Americans. Before the breakout of armed hostilities, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had characterized America’s growing involvement in the conflict overseas as a valiant defense of “four essential human freedoms”—freedom of speech and freedom of religion, freedom from fear and freedom from want. Now the war had come and gone, and the Allies had prevailed. Democracy had triumphed over fascism, freedom over fear. To be sure, success had come at a terrible cost. Over a million military personnel died or sustained injury during the war. Many more sacrifices remained quietly untold, never making it into the official record. But the country had rallied together as never before, and it finally pulled through the darkness. Better days were ahead. Millions of servicemen were returning home from their assignments abroad, ready to resume their lives as civilians with the generous assistance of the G.I. Bill. Old couples reunited. New romances began. There was a baby boom. A steady flow of defense dollars had righted the once-listing economy, and jobs were growing plentiful. For men without a college degree, some of the best jobs belonged to workers at big companies in the manufacturing and industrial sector—companies like General Motors and U.S. Steel. There, strong unions won collective bargaining agreements that meant steady employment, high wages, and generous fringe benefits such as retirement pensions and private health care insurance. Hundreds of thousands of Americans suddenly had the financial wherewithal to become homeowners for the first time, often with the help of federally backed mortgage guarantees. Flush with cash and credit, they went on a buying spree to fill their new homes with washers and dryers, couches and sofas, television sets and every other conceivable sort of household and consumer good. Shiny new cars practically rolled off assembly lines in Detroit and right into the driveways and garages of new homeowners. Life was good, and there was a widespread sense that it would only get better. As the historian James T. Patterson would later write, many Americans were developing “grand expectations” about the road ahead.1 Everyone understood that jobs were the key to unlocking America’s newfound prosperity. “Never underestimate the value of a job,” wrote C HA PT ER 1 2 one typical observer. “It may mean the difference between security and insecurity.” But not all Americans with hopes for the future were able to find jobs so easily. Jobs and the security they conferred proved painfully elusive. In 1947, a resident of Richmond, Calif., wrote to Republican Governor Earl Warren to tell him about her frustrating experience on the job market. For some time now, Mrs. F. L. Osborne had been trying without success to find work as a secretary or retail clerk in northern California. It should not have been so hard. Her credentials seemed impressive enough. A high school graduate, she had excelled at San Francisco Junior College and won a coveted transfer to the prestigious University of California, Berkeley. Finding employment, though, had been strangely and impossibly difficult. Although she was perfectly qualified for the positions to which she had applied, one company had flatly turned her down in San Francisco, and two others in Berkeley had “coldly and abruptly” rejected her. Osborne could hardly hide her disappointment. Her husband had served overseas in the war against fascism and totalitarianism . Things were supposed to get better for them afterward. The whole experience led her to question the sacrifices that they had made for their country. Did the United States not fight the Axis menace so that all Americans might speak and worship freely, so that all Americans might live their lives free from fear and want? If she and her husband could not fully partake of the “four freedoms” for which America went to war, then “why have our men died and for what cause?” Osborne and her husband were black.2 Thousands of other African Americans would have listened to Osborne ’s story with a sense of knowing familiarity. The same question surely stood out in their minds as well. But it was less a debilitating doubt than a spur to further action. After the Second World War, growing numbers of African Americans refused to bury quietly their hopes and dreams. Instead, they fought back, staging acts of...


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MARC Record
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