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Revisiting When Affirmative Action Was White


Ira Katznelson published his critically important When Affirmative Action Was White in 2005. It’s one of the most important books published on historical topics in the early 21st century. Katznelson thinks back to the book’s major themes eighteen years later in this long Boston Review piece. In it, he addresses two lines of criticism of the book–that it overestimated the role race played in excluding Black Americans from Social Security and that it underestimated how much the GI Bill helped Black Americans. I tend to agree with Katznelson on both these issues. He then discusses some of the book’s impact:

At Howard University, President Johnson had observed, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” After When Affirmative Action Was White appeared, it often elicited a “that’s not fair” response and not only in expected quarters. An example of the book’s approach to rectification has been adopted by Representatives James Clyburn of South Carolina and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. Addressing the “not fair” aspects of the G.I. Bill, these Democrats have proposed to offer housing loans and educational assistance to the few remaining “Black veterans of World War II, and surviving spouses and certain direct descendants of such veterans.”

In presenting this legislation, Clyburn and Moulton underscored how, as a result of the provisions I identified, the majority of Black veterans had been denied equal access to “low-interest loans to start a business or farm, unemployment compensation, and education assistance . . . by mostly-white state and local Veterans Administrations.” They emphasized that “purposeful discriminatory federal, state, and local policies, along with political and institutional barriers, created significant inequity in access to GI Bill benefits” and “prevented these heroes from achieving the full economic mobility potential provided by these comprehensive federal benefits, and affected the accumulation of wealth by Black families over generations.” This model could be extended to other policy areas.

Of course, much has happened in the decade and a half since the publication of When Affirmative Action Was White, not least the financial collapse of 2008, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the murder of George Floyd—this last just one indicator of the country’s profound crises of policing and criminal justice. All of these developments have illuminated and exacerbated racial inequality. To be sure, there have been gains in fairness, equity, and diversity, yet the country continues to experience deep injustice.

Manifestly, the span separating the good from the ugly has widened. This range—signified by the successive terms of President Obama and Donald Trump, the country’s most blatantly racist leader since Woodrow Wilson—reminds us that racism is neither fixed nor unitary. Often moving in more than one direction, it possesses multiple dimensions. These include physical segregation, personal insecurity, desperate material conditions, cultural disrespect, and barriers to equal civic participation.

To help overcome injustice in all of racism’s dimensions, I concluded When Affirmative Action Was White by advocating efforts to “extend affirmative action in order to end it within one generation.” Combining hope and expectation, this proposal, I realize, was too simple. Certainly, the prospect has not been achieved. Arguably, the policy challenges posed by the book have become even more difficult, even more vexing. The distance required for decent remediation has yet to be navigated.

There is much to do.

Just don’t ask liberal whites to reconsider their schooling decisions. We all know that is beyond the pale of acceptable conversation about race.

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