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When Affirmative Action Was White

[ 6 ] August 24, 2006 |

Ira Katznelson’s recent book is a tour de force, a lucid account of an important historical phenomenon which incorporates the insights of historical institutionalist analysis without bogging down in jargon. The book–which begins with a discussion of LBJ’s “To Fulfill These Rights” speech–consists largely of demonstrating how the great social programs of the New Deal and Fair Deal had the paradoxical effect of increasing racial inequality, and moreover shows that this was not an accidental byproduct but a quite deliberate effect of the way these programs were structured. (There is also a concluding chapter about the implications of this history for affirmative action, a discussion I’ll leave for a subsequent post.)

It is true that the major social programs of the New and Fair Deals–the most important of which are the bundle of programs that fall under the Social Security Act and the G.I. Bill–did not explicitly apportion benefits on the basis of race. But, of course, this does not prove a lack of intent to discriminate–as most of you know, African Americans were almost entirely disenfranchised in the South for many decades although even in its most reactionary periods the Supreme Court held explicit racial denials of the vote to violate the Fifteenth Amendment. What happened is that Southern legislators–especially in the Senate–used their overrepresentation both in terms of seats and in terms of leadership in committees–to carefully structure programs so that they would not threaten Jim Crow (which, of course, depended on large numbers of African Americans being held in de facto peonage relationships and in a general lack of economic equality.) Democratic Presidents, who needed Southern votes to get the programs through, had little choice but to acquiesce, and civil rights leaders–who understood that the programs helped African Americans in absolute terms and knew that it would be impossible to pass more equitable legislation–were placed in a terrible bind but generally (and rationally) supported the legislation.

With Social Security, the key provision was the exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers, fields that (especially in the South) were overwhelmingly African American. In addition to that, the administration of New Deal programs was left to state officials, who in the apartheid states applied them as arbitrarily as you would expect:

By 1935, ten southern states had lower relief rates for rural blacks than whites [although blacks were more likely to objectively qualify], representing not actual need ‘but discrepancies in administrative practices and standards’ in situations where there was wide local discretion. In some Georgia counties, for example, federal relief monies excluded all blacks; in Mississippi relief was limited to under 1 percent. (37)

The programs under the G.I. Bill had similar structural factors that actually increased material racial inequality. First of all, segregation of the Armed Forces and the much higher rejection rate for blacks during W.W. II meant that a much lower percentage of blacks were eligible for the programs in the first place. Second, the segregation of higher education and the often decrepit state of primarily black vocational schools in the South meant that education opportunities offered by the government were far more beneficial to whites, and the federal government did not initially make any effort to use its spending power to disadvantage segregated schools. And, finally, as with the New Deal a significant degree of local administration was maintained. Rather than having the government administer the loans for subsidized mortgages, for example, the government largely went through private banks–who, of course, especially in the South were far less likely to provide capital to blacks. As Katznelson concludes, this legislation constituted affirmative action for whites–the largesse of the government’s social programs was not apportioned based strictly on need, but greatly (and intentionally) favored white people.

In addition to the obvious injustice involved, there are three more general points that I take from Katznelson’s analysis:

  • Looking at the effects of the G.I. Bill and its widening of racial inequality provides, I think, compelling evidence for the Krugman/Yglesias position that government policy affects ex ante distribution as well as changing existing patterns. Particularly since (as Katznelson emphasizes) differentials in wealth are much more enduring than differences in income, having access to higher education and home ownership has a major impact on future generations–and the fact that African Americans had much less access to these benefits surely continues to have large effects on distributions of wealth today.
  • Calling the Senate “the world’s greatest deliberative body” is something close to the opposite of the truth. Its malapportionment–far greater than could be justified by any reasonable interest in geographical representation–and the various rules that allow a minority of Senators to block legislation is largely undemocratic in itself. And these effects are compounded because the substantive views of the majority white southern legislators who have always benefited most from the malapportionment have frequently been appalling. Had the New Deal and Fair Deal legislation been designed in a Parliamentary system, many of these structural defects wouldn’t have existed.
  • This history also provides further evidence against the fetishization of “local control.” Sometime local administration can be valuable in providing particular expertise and adapting to local conditions, but it also increases the chances for arbitrary enforcement and the use of discretion to reinforce existing hierarchies that may be cross-cut to some degree at the national level. The presumption that local control and federalism are ipso facto good things lead to things like the U.S.’ completely irrational federal election system. There are many contexts in which federal administration and/or federal standards are very good things, and this is a particularly stark case in point. (And this also demonstrates a very large potential problem with funneling social spending through religious organizations, which–especially is they are given wide discretion–could easily lead to considerable discrimination against unpopular minorities.)

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  1. […] well before the Iowa caucuses, and was even prescient enough to apologize for him before he had announced he was running. And, in general, the fact that evaluating the presidency as if the U.S. has a parliamentary system […]

  2. […] stakeholders. Note too that it’s not as if FDR fought loudly and publicly for a safety net that wasn’t grotesquely biased against African Americans and only gave in at the last minute; he knew perfectly well that segregationist Dems were no more […]

  3. […] some forms of affirmative action — such as the kinds that benefited George W. Bush.   The far more pervasive kind we’re now supposed to forget […]

  4. […] One question Caro doesn’t fully answer is why Byrd allowed himself to get outmaneuvered on the larger civil rights issue. There are a variety of potential factors, all of which probably mattered to some degree. Byrd was a tired old man who wasn’t really doing his homework on the big picture. He may have (plausibly enough) thought that a substantive civil rights bill would be a non-starter anyway. But another part of it is that before breaking the coalition of conservative Republicans and Democrats that had dominated Congress since 1938 was possible, LBJ had been willing to do the bidding of the apartheid faction in a variety of issues as a member of Congress and then a congressional leader. Because of LBJ’s past compromises with evil the Byrds and Russels were complacent about LBJ’s actual commitment to civil rights until it was too late. A lot of the political capital LBJ accumulated to pass the Civil Rights Act involved surrendering to the most odious forces in American politics (just as the New Deal did.) […]

  5. tdaxp says:

    This is an interesting post, but it seems unclear what it’s message is.

    For instance, “Affirmative Action” generally implies a non-meritocratic ethnocentric distributive program. The claim of the post, I take it, is that the southern Scotch-Irish hijacked the application of the GI Bill and other World War-ra programs to beneift themselves at the expense of their African-American compatriots.

    But then there’s lines like this:

    “the much higher rejection rate for blacks during W.W. II ”

    Well, the reason for this is the same that the offspring of Black American soldier-German unions during the war have no measurable different in intelligence from the offspring of White American soldier-German unions during the war: The military was deeply segregated on the basis of general intelligence. Generally this is seen as meritocratic, thus collapsing the Affirmative-Action argument.

    Likewise, the “exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers” was driven by the political influence overwhelmingly white, sparely populated states of the Great Plains and the American west, for their own benefit. It’s hard to argue that a specific program was ‘white,’ in the sense of being anti-black, when it was pushed by whites for the benefit of whites in a position nearly identical to blacks.

    What’s too bad is the rhetoric of this post undermines what I think is the important point: the GI Bill and related programs probably increased the division of the United States. This doesn’t mean it was affirmative action, however. Meritocratic systems only give you equal outcomes when merit (as it’s generally defined, in this context) is evenly distributed.

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