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  • Racial Liberalism, Affirmative Action, and the Troubled History of the President’s Committee on Government Contracts
  • Timothy M. Thurber


On August 13, 1953, Dwight Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10479 establishing the President's Committee on Government Contracts (PCGC). Designed to oversee federal agencies' efforts to ensure nondiscrimination in firms with government contracts, the committee could receive complaints of discrimination, conduct educational campaigns, make recommendations to agencies on how to combat discrimination, receive agency enforcement reports, and establish ties with private and public organizations working on equal employment issues. Enforcement powers, including the authority to cancel contracts, would remain with individual agencies. Eisenhower designated Vice President Richard Nixon to head the committee, which consisted of six individuals from agencies awarding the largest contracts and nine representatives from business, labor, and civic groups. A small full-time staff would implement policies set by these members.1

The PCGC came under strong criticism from many civil rights activists in the 1950s, and scholars have subsequently dismissed it as largely ineffective. Correctly noting that the committee failed to open many job opportunities for African Americans and other minorities, critics emphasize that the PCGC lacked authority, had too few resources, handled cases on an individual basis, and had a simplistic understanding [End Page 446] of discrimination as primarily a psychological problem best solved through transformation of whites' values. The Eisenhower administration, they allege, was blind to the broader structural nature of employment challenges confronting African Americans.2

The PCGC thus appears irrelevant to the development of equal employment policy in the post–World War II era, but a close look at its activities regarding African Americans challenges several dominant interpretations of race during this period. Most historians of the origins of affirmative action highlight events of the late 1960s and early 1970s and stress how affirmative action's focus on "color consciousness" and "equal results" contrasted sharply with earlier models based on "color blindness" and "equal opportunity." Some trace its origins back to the 1930s and 1940s or even earlier. The PCGC practiced several aspects of what would later be called "affirmative action," however. It attempted to push employers beyond token hiring of African Americans for low-level jobs by urging the creation of better educational and job-training programs, prodding businesses to broaden recruitment efforts, and demanding numbers on how many African Americans a business employed as well as the types of jobs they held. Although important differences existed between the PCGC's efforts and later policies, the committee's work nevertheless suggests that the shift toward affirmative action during the Johnson and Nixon years was not as sudden or as substantial a change from earlier periods as is often portrayed.3

Committee activities raise questions about the extent to which racial liberalism influenced policy in the 1950s. According to many scholars, policymakers mistakenly followed the lead of Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma by conceiving of discrimination as an irrational psychological problem. Policymakers "treated the symptoms of racism, not the disease" by stressing the elimination of intentional discrimination through educational campaigns aimed at changing white attitudes. Once formal barriers had been removed, African Americans were responsible for their success or failure. The PCGC had one foot firmly planted on the individualistic ground of racial liberalism, but it also offered a structural analysis of racial problems. Policymakers during the 1950s displayed a deeper understanding of labor markets and the economic obstacles facing African Americans than scholars have acknowledged.4

The PCGC's actions, moreover, speak to scholarly controversies over the emergence of racial policy. Some historians emphasize a direct link between mass protests and a response from the state. Policy resulted from constituent pressure as lawmakers sought to defuse a crisis or win black votes. Other scholars view the state as largely autonomous. Political concerns within the Eisenhower administration, as well as criticism from [End Page 447] civil rights leaders, influenced some aspects of the committee's operation, but policy emerged more often as a result of fighting among fragmented bureaucratic entities, the priorities of agency officials, and the limited capacity of the PCGC. Largely autonomous state decision-making is also evident in the role international relations and economic matters played for some...


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