When Affirmative Action Was White

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:

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