- White, Black, or Colorblind:The Past and the Future of Affirmative Action
The mere mention of "affirmative action" can set hairs on end and teeth on edge. The past two decades have seen endless debates, and a burgeoning scholarly literature, on the United States government's best-known and most controversial civil rights policy. The two studies under review add to this literature by saying something noteworthy about why affirmative action originated. Thoughtful and provocative, they also offer glimpses into how this policy might evolve in the twenty-first century.
The title of Ira Katznelson's study, When Affirmative Action Was White, will intrigue readers. Rather than revisit affirmative action's origins during the 1960s and 1970s, Katznelson focuses on social policy during the 1930s and 1940s, when the federal government, through the New Deal and the Fair Deal, bestowed an array of bounties on working-class Americans. Collectively, such policies did more that provide security—a safety net—for those most vulnerable. During the economic boom that followed World War II, they placed a middle-class lifestyle within the [End Page 471] reach of millions. Yet the reforms "were crafted and administered in a deeply discriminatory manner" (17). In the end, the New and Fair Deals "produced a series of 'strange deals' that, together, constituted a program of affirmative action granting white Americans privileged access to state-sponsored economic mobility" (21). The result was an ever-widening gap between black and white incomes.
Katznelson's argument is most convincing. The administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, after all, constructed America's welfare state atop a creaky political alliance between northern liberals eager to shield their working-class constituents from the ill-effects of industrialization and white southerners who wanted to redirect federal dollars coming into their region away from African Americans. Southern politicians feared that any economic enhancement for blacks would threaten their region's system of racial segregation. Accordingly, they wrote the Social Security Act so as to exclude domestic and agricultural workers, who in the South were largely black. They also placed Aid to Dependent Children, the part of the Social Security Act designed to assist female-headed households—also disproportionately black—under state, not federal, control. That move enabled whites in the South to run the program for their own advantage. The tactic of excluding domestic and agricultural workers reappeared in the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set a national minimum wage, and the tradition of state-control defined the G.I. Bill of Rights, which, as written and administered, enabled mainly white veterans to secure a college degree, own a home, or start a business. Add to all that the passage of laws—Smith-Connally (1943) and Taft-Hartley (1947)—restricting the power of unions, just as they were preparing to organize black and white workers in the South, and the existence of a racially segregated military that confined African Americans to menial tasks instead of equipping them with meaningful skills and one has what amounted to affirmative action for whites.
Katznelson's thesis is so compelling in part because he delineates the principal players—or culprits. There is Representative John Rankin, the Mississippi Democrat and rabid racist who wrote the state-control provision of the G.I. Bill. Southerners like Rankin, Katznelson shows, were devilishly adept lawmakers, not merely resisters to change. African American leaders understood their purposes and protested—loudly. But New Deal liberals "put other priorities well ahead of civil rights" and gave in to southern power and southern threats to derail all federal-sponsored reforms (29). Katznelson, to his credit, is too balanced to insist that the New Deal offered nothing to blacks. Indeed, he might [End Page 472] even have been harsher on New Dealers by emphasizing the racial bias in federal agricultural...