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When Affirmative Action Was White

by Ira Katznelson

Book Summary by Brian T. Murphy

Summary: Katznelson addresses two central questions:

  1. "How shall we understand the missed chance to fashion black mobility and create a robust African American middle class in the two decades after the Second World War?"

  2. "...what should we do to address the unequal powers of race even after the legislative work of the civil rights revolution has been accomplished?”


“Affirmative action performs acts of 'corrective justice'. Public policy is used to compensate members of a deprived group for prior losses and for gains unfairly achieved by others that resulted from prior governmental action.” p149

Major themes:

  • Outstanding book summary in Chapter 6: “Social security began to pay old age pensions in 1939. By the end of the 1940s its original provisions had been impressively improved. The GI Bill was the largest targeted fully national program of support in American history. The country passed new labor laws that promoted unions and protected people as they worked. The Army was a great engine of skill training and mobility during the Second World War. None of these was a marginal or secondary program. To the contrary, individually and collectively they organized a revolution in the role of government that remade the country’s social structure in dramatic, positive ways. But most blacks were left out. The damage to racial equity caused by each program was immense. Taken together, the effects of these public laws were devastating. Social Security, from which the majority of blacks were excluded until well into the 1950s, quickly became the country’s most important social legislation. The labor laws of the New Deal and Fair Deal created a framework of protection for tens of millions of workers who secured minimum wages, maximum hours, and the right to join industrial as well as craft unions. African Americans who worked on the land or as domestics, the great majority, lack these protections. When unions made inroads in the South, where most blacks lived, moreover, Congress changed the rules of the game to make organizing much more difficult. Perhaps most surprising and most important, the treatment of veterans after the war, despite the universal eligibility for the benefits offered by the GI Bill, perpetuated the blatant racism that had marked military affairs during the war itself. At no other time in American history have so much money and so many resources been put at the service of the generation completing education, entering the workforce, and forming families. Yet comparatively little of this largess was available to black veterans. With these policies, the Gordian knot binding race to class tightened.” P142-143

  • “As a consequence, at the very moment when a wide array of public policies was providing most white Americans with valuable tools to advance their social welfare–ensure their old age, get good jobs, acquire economic security, build assets, and gain middle-class status–most black Americans were left behind or left out. Affirmative action then was white. New national policies enacted in the pre-civil rights, last-gasp era of Jim Crow constituted a massive transfer of quite specific privileges to white Americans. New programs produced economic and social opportunity for favored constituencies and thus widened the gap between white and black Americans in the aftermath of the Second World War. And the effects, as we will see, did not stop even after discriminatory codes were swept aside by the civil rights movement and the legislation it inspired.” P22-23

Preface – Dubois’s Paradox

  • “It [this book] reveals how policy decisions dealing with welfare, work, and war during Jim Crow’s last hurrah in the 1930s and 1940s excluded, or differentially treated, the vast majority of African Americans. It also traces how inequality, in fact, increased at the insistence of Southern representatives in Congress, while their other congressional colleagues where complicit. As a result of the legislation they passed, blacks became even more significantly disadvantaged when a modern American middle-class was fashioned during and after the Second World War. Public policy, including affirmative action, has sufficiently taken this troubling legacy into account”. px

  • Katznelson introduces his intention: “rather than limit attention to successful programs that have made our elite institutions more racially integrated, I propose that affirmative action focus on antidotes to specific harms that date back to national policies in the 1930s and 1940s as remedies for the deep, even chronic dispossession that continues to afflict a large percentage of black America.” pxi

  • “By linking the history of affirmative action for blacks since the mid 1960s with the prior record of affirmative action for whites, I hope to refocus public debate on these neglected subjects.” pxii

1 – Doctor of Laws

  • Much of this chapter focuses on a speech that President Lyndon Johnson gave at Howard University on June 4, 1965, a year after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.

  • “Why did the disparity between white and black Americans widen after the Second World War despite the country’s prosperity?” p2

  • In Johnson’s speech he said: “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. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.” p7

  • Katznelson criticized Johnson’s speech: “The primary shortcoming of Johnson’s speech was its surprising neglect of the history of public policy that had acted as a key cause of the distressing outcomes he chronicled. As a result, not only did its historical account remain vague, substituting expressive language for hard-edged analysis, but the repertoire of possible answers Johnson announced was unordered and unspecific, leaving unresolved just how he preferred to remedy the cumulative history of racial disadvantage.” p10

  • Katznelson details that 1929-1941 was one of the bleakest “economic periods for black unemployment since the close of Reconstruction.” WWII improved unemployment for both black-and-white Americans. Labor unions developed. But “Just at the moment the United States developed an increased suburban middle-class bulge, and Irish and Italian Catholics and Jews were advancing into mainstream white culture, African Americans remained stuck, in the main, in economically marginal class locations.” p13-14

  • Johnson’s speech detailed several barriers to black success: poverty and breakdown of the Negro family structure. Katznelson adds that “Neither of these arguments can be dismissed…Still, these explanations were insufficient.” “Yet even more important, and entirely absent from the president’s account, was the set of causes that will be highlighted in more detail in the chapters below: how the wide array of significant and far-reaching public policies that were shaped and administered during the New Deal and Fair Deal era of the 1930s and 1940s were crafted and administered in a deeply discriminatory manner. This was no accident. Still an era of legal segregation in seventeen American states and Washington, D.C., the southern wing of the Democratic Party was in a position to dictate the contours of Social Security, key labor legislation, the GI Bill, and other landmark laws that helped create a modern white middle-class in a manner that also protected what these legislators routinely called ‘the southern way of life.’” p16-17

  • The democratic party that fashioned and superintended the New Deal and fair deal combined two different political systems: one that was incorporating new groups and voters, who had arrived from overseas or had migrated from the South; the other still an authoritarian one-party system, still beholden to racial separation.” p19

  • Importantly, Katznelson describes the political climate that allowed racially imbalanced New and Fair Deal policies: “Southern seniority was exaggerated by not having to compete in a two-party system. Members from the region thus secured a disproportionate number of committee chairmanships, giving them special gatekeeping powers. Further, the filibuster in the Senate served to advance Southern power. These features of southern representation combined to make the preferences and sufferance of the South central to all key features of the New Deal. In effect, the South maintained a legislative veto throughout this formative period.” p21

  • “The South used its legislative powers to transfer its priorities about race to Washington. Its leaders imposed them, with little resistance, on New Deal policies.” p21

  • Katznelson details the specific strategies used by Southern Democrats (and Republicans) to safeguard their racial power: “They used three mechanisms. First, whenever the nature of the legislation permitted, they sought to leave out as many African Americans as they could. They achieved this not by inscribing race into law but by writing provisions that…were racially laden. The most important instances concerned categories of work in which blacks were heavily overrepresented, notably farmworkers and maids. These groups–constituting more than 60% of the black labor force in the 1930s and nearly 75% of those who are employed in the South–were excluded from the legislation that created modern unions, from laws that set minimum wages and regulated the hours of work, and from Social Security until the 1950s...Second, they successfully insisted that the administration of these and other laws, including assistance to the poor and support for veterans, be placed in the hands of local officials who were deeply hostile to black aspirations…Third, they prevented Congress from attaching any sort of anti-discrimination provisions to a wide array of social welfare programs such as community health services, school lunches, and hospital construction grants, indeed all the programs that distributed monies to their region.” p22-23

2 – Welfare in Black and White

  • Katznelson describes poverty in the South, including both black and white populations. The average income in the South was less than half of that in other parts of the US. Farm labor was the major profession in the South, and most blacks (~75%) resided there. Of the labor force that worked on the land (nearly 16 million people), approximately 40% were black. p30

  • Pages 30-35 document the disparities between black and white people pre-World War II. Education, medical, working, etc. Blacks were already severely disadvantaged. Thus, “Under these the opportunity for blacks to obtain relief payments and secure other sources of public benefits from the New Deal, limited though they were, could seem miraculous.” p35

  • “Though many executive decisions about broad rules and spending decisions lay in Washington, their execution was local, placing federal relief initiatives in the hands of the various states. These, in turn, usually assigned responsibility to the smallest, most local unit of government. By decentralizing authority and fragmenting decision-making, national policies could be administered to suit white southern preferences.” p38-39

  • p41 lists several quotes from blacks who worked in government at the time, highlighting that even then attempts to exclude blacks from New Deal and Fair Deal welfare systems were obvious. This concept isn’t a vast conspiracy. It was obvious then, and it’s obvious now.

  • “The New Deal did indeed stem some of the tides of adversity, but at the cost of accommodation with racial oppression.” p41

  • “By contrast, southern whites were accorded a privileged access to the political order. Since blacks counted in the numbers reported by the census, their large presence combined with their frequent inability to vote allowed white citizens to gain representation in higher proportions than their population in the House of Representatives. The Senate, with its distribution of two seats for each state, conferred on its 17 racially segregated states a veto on all legislative enactments they did not like…Federal social welfare policy operated, in short, not just as an instrument of racial discrimination but as a perverse formula for affirmative action.” p51

3 – Rules for Work

  • Roosevelt’s New Deal included the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA, late 1930s), which established a minimum wage, gave annual salary increases, and set a maximum number of working hours. Black professions were excluded from this. p55

  • “With unemployment illuminated by wartime production, and with many blacks entering the industrial labor force at a time when many white workers were overseas, unions began to organize southern workers, including many blacks. In this context, southern representatives feared that the New Deal rules for labor and work they had helped create would undermine the region’s traditional racial order. As a result, they shifted their votes from the pro-labor column to join with Republicans during and after the war to make it more difficult for workers to join unions and to limit their rights at the workplace.” p61 “This switch reflected one of the most significant political developments of the 1940s. In the Senate and the House, southern Democrats, now stalwart opponents, voted overwhelmingly with Republicans…”. p61

  • “The results of the defection of the South from the democratic party coalition on labor issues were devastating for unions and particularly harmful for black workers. The new political arithmetic radically diminished their reach into the south and the chance to organize the region’s black workers.” p74

  • The Taft-Harley Act is discussed quite a bit. Essentially, this act restricted the power of labor unions.

  • A fantastic summary of Chapter 3 is written on p 78-79. “With good reason, they feared that labor organizing would blend inexorably with, and fuel, civil rights activism; and they were frightened that an active federal government might level wages across racial lines, create a national labor market, encourage blacks to leave the South, diminish the southern establishment’s control over those who stayed, and directly challenge Jim Crow practices.” p78-79

  • “In the mind of the southern legislator, by contrast, labor had become race. This was a tidal shift that would affect midcentury American politics as nothing else. With this transformation, the majority of American blacks, once again, were left out. The craft unions and industrial unions that sheltered under the umbrella of the National Labor Relations Act lost much of their capacity to recruit large categories of black workers, especially in the South, after the passage of Taft-Hartley. The protections offered by the Fair Labor Standards Act were not extended to the preponderance of African Americans. By contrast, Federal work policies boosted white prospects.” p79

4 – Divisions in War

  • “By the time the Korean War had ended, all the branches of service were integrated by race, though some all-black infantry regiments remained. By 1956, integration was complete. Today, the military is the country’s major institution least marked by racial separation.” p82

  • WWII stats: 22 black combat units in Europe, 1 in 5 engineering units was black, 2 combat air units were black.

  • By 1940 fewer than 1.5% of the Army and National Guard were black. They were purposely left out of service. This is significant because it means that they are also left out of training and post-war benefits. p99 On the desire for blacks to serve in the military: “The backlog was so substantial in southern communities that single black men waited while married white men were drafted into service.” Mostly educational deficiencies were cited as the reason to exclude blacks, despite the military’s continued acceptance of illiterate whites. p101

  • “By the end of 1942, just over 10 percent of the total of 4,532,117 soldiers under arms were African American; within a year, their numbers had grown to 754,000, or 11 percent of the 6,778,000 mobilize troops. Their distribution was not comparable, however. Four in ten white troops were allocated to combat units, compared to half that rate for blacks, and many black combat units were used for heavy labor. By contrast, 35 percent of black soldiers served in service units, while only 14 percent of whites received such assignments.” Katznelson goes on to describe how things were the worst in the Navy. p105

  • “But for most African-American individuals, and certainly for the group as a whole, war service ended with a wider gap between whites and blacks, as white access to training and occupational advancement moved ahead at a much more vigorous rate.” p112

5 – White Veterans Only

  • The setup: “No other New Deal initiative had as great an impact on changing the country as the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act. Aimed at reintegrating 16 million veterans, it reached eight of ten men born during the 1920s. Even today, this legislation, which quickly came to be called the GI Bill of Rights, qualifies as the most wide-ranging set of social benefits ever offered by the federal government in a single, comprehensive initiative. Between 1944 and 1971, federal spending for former soldiers in this “model welfare system” totaled over $95 billion. By 1948, 15% of the federal budget was devoted to the GI Bill, and the Veterans Administration (VA) employed 17% of the federal workforce...One by one, family by family, these expenditures transformed the United States by the way they eased the pathway of soldiers–the generation that was marrying and setting forth into adulthood– returning to civilian life. With the help of the GI Bill, millions bought homes, attended college, started business ventures, and found jobs commensurate with their skills. Through these opportunities, and by advancing the momentum towards suburban living, mass consumption, and the creation of wealth and economic security, this legislation created middle class America. No other instrument was nearly as important.” p113

  • “More than 200,000 use the bill’s access to capital to acquire farms or start businesses. Veterans Administration mortgages paid for nearly 5,000,000 new homes…With GI Bill interest rates capped at modest rates, and down payments waived for loans up to thirty years, the potential clientele broadened dramatically. The balance decisively tilted away from renting toward purchasing. Between 1945 and 1954, the United States added 13 million new homes to its housing stock. In 1946 and 1947, VA mortgages alone accounted for more than 40% of the total…Residential ownership became the key foundation of economic security for the burgeoning and overwhelmingly white middle-class.” p115-116

  • P120 describes the ways in which the GI Bill helped some black veterans. However, Katznelson points out that these gains are “not so much wrong as misleading. By amplifying the bill’s achievements for returning black soldiers without sufficiently underscoring the high and often impassable barriers placed in their path, such an appraisal can be deceptive… there was no greater instrument for widening an already huge racial gap in postwar America then the GI Bill.” p121

  • The GI Bill was written in the House of Representatives, which was chaired by John Rankin of Mississippi. Rankin was openly racist/anti-Jewish and made sure that implementation was left up to states and localities. P 123 Pages 123-127 discuss Rankin’s racism and the effects of local control over GI benefits.

  • In this aspect of affirmative action for whites, the path to job placement, loans, unemployment benefits, and schooling was tied to local VA centers, almost entirely staffed by white employees, or through local banks and both public and private educational institutions. By directing federal funding “in keeping with local favor,” the veteran status that black soldiers had earned ‘was placed at the discretion of parochial intolerance.’ ” p128

  • “Nowhere was this [distribution of GI benefits] more true than in the realm of education. Even outside the South, black access to primarily white colleges and universities remained limited. De facto quotas and, in some cases, high selectivity closed these schools to the vast majority of blacks qualified for higher education.” p129-130

  • “Both in absolute numbers and in proportion to their populations, white students had far more college places than blacks. Within the South, where blacks constituted a quarter of the population, white colleges in 1947 outnumbered black schools by more than five to one. In Mississippi, more than a half the state’s population was black, but just seven of the 33 institutions; in Tennessee, 8 of 35; in all, 102 of 647.” p131

  • “Blacks also were regularly denied access to the loans that the GI Bill promised. The federal government did not make loans of this or any other kind directly; rather, the Veteran’s Administration guaranteed them. In consequence, prospective borrowers had to convince banks to lend. And the vast majority of financial institutions refused to approve loans to African Americans…These impediments were not confined to the South. In New York and northern New Jersey suburbs, fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the GI Bill supported home purchases by non-whites.” p140

  • Applications for self-employment business assistance also were routinely denied to blacks, often on insubstantial grounds…A survey of thirteen Mississippi cities by Ebony magazine found that of the 3,229 VA guaranteed home, business, and Pharma loans made in 1947, precisely two had gone to blacks.” p140

  • Gist: “It is indisputable that the GI Bill offered eligible African Americans more benefits and more opportunities then they possibly could have imagined in the early 1940s. Yet the way in which the law and its programs were organized and administered, and it’s ready accommodation to the larger discriminatory context within which it was embedded, produced practices that were more racially distinct and arguably more cruel than any other New Deal-era program. The performance of the GI Bill mocked the promise of fair treatment. The differential treatment meted out to African Americans sharply curtailed the statute’s powerful egalitarian promise and significantly widened the country’s large racial gap. Any celebration of postwar gains for veterans must reckon with these doleful practices and legacies.” p140-141

6 – Johnson’s ambitions, Powell’s principles: Thoughts on renewing affirmative action

  • The chapter begins stating that given the climate in the US – an escalating Vietnam War, divisions in the Democratic Party, resurgence of Republicans, racial tensions – white opinion was never on board with a comprehensive approach to alleviate poverty and disadvantage. Basically, equality for blacks was politically impossible. p144

  • “Affirmative action performs acts of “corrective justice”. Public policy is used to compensate members of a deprived group for prior losses and for gains unfairly achieved by others that resulted from prior governmental action.” p149

  • “On virtually every social and economic dimension, blacks and whites are still a nation apart. The constellation of concentrated poverty, poor access to jobs, derisory housing conditions, high rates of incarceration, and challenges to traditional family formation continues to define issues of race and racism in the United States…now as then, the call for color-blindness implicitly scorns these social realities. At best, it is sightless. At worst, it is a soft version of bigotry.” p156

  • “The consequences proved profound. By 1984, when GI Bill mortgages had mainly matured, the median white household had a net worth of $39,135; the comparable figure for black households was only $3,397, or just 9% of white holdings. Most of this difference was accounted for by the absence of homeownership. Nearly seven in ten whites owned homes worth an average of $52,000. By comparison, only four in ten blacks were homeowners, and their houses had an average value of less than $30,000. African Americans who were not homeowners possessed virtually no wealth at all.” p164

  • Katznelson provides a few examples of affirmative action for blacks that could be institute

    • For the lack of access to the key programs under the GI Bill, programs of subsidized mortgages, small business loans, and educational grants could now be put in place.” p177

    • For the absence of access to the minimum wage, tax credits to an equivalence of the average loss could be tendered

    • “For the lag in entering the Social Security system, the excluded could be identified and they, or their heirs, could be offered one-time grants that would have to be paid into designated retirement funds.

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