Book review: When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-century America

I was introduced to the concept of affirmative action as being mainly for whites during the Scene On Radio series of podcasts about whiteness (Being White). I scoured the podcast’s bibliography and found When Affirmative Action Was White.

To be honest, for some reason, I thought the book was going to be a narrative history from the 1600s onward. In reality, it was an argument that focused on government policies from the 1930s through the 1950s. The New Deal, Social Security, labor laws, the GI Bill were not necessarily racist or written for whites only. But because of political and institutional racism in the US, they ended up being discriminatory.

These laws and federal programs helped millions of white Americans and pushed aside millions of black Americans. While African Americans received some benefits, the aid they received was miniscule compared to what whites received. These federal programs were responsible for creating a middle class. Ironically, these programs increased inequality and the wealth gap between whites and blacks. Thanks to these programs, blacks are now further behind whites.

When Affirmative Action Was White is less a history about affirmative action and more a review of how the programs propped up the Southern racist culture and Jim Crow laws. To cut to the chase, to get sufficient votes for these programs to become law, non-Southern Democrats had to cut deals with the Southern Democrats. The deals they cut? Allow the states to administer the programs locally and distribute the money. In essence, Southern Congress members could ensure that their Southern way of life (read: racist) continued.

It was as if the Civil War and the freedom of the slaves never happened. The result has been generational poverty and wealth inequalities.

About the time that moves were made to include blacks more and more in affirmative action, the cry for color-blindness arose. Affirmative action was OK for whites, but when it extended more fully to blacks, then suddenly race needed to be ignored.

The author argues that the convention of looking at affirmative action as starting in the 1960s with Johnson’s Great Society does a grave disservice to understanding the inequality gap. You cannot cry foal with modern forms of affirmative action (e.g., “Susie Smith didn’t get into Harvard because her spot went to a black student”). This ignores how previous affirmative action preferenced whites over blacks.

The endpoint that the author builds up to is President Johnson’s speech at Howard University in 1965 and Justice Powell’s 1978 decision that both supported and circumscribed affirmative action. Johnson’s vision never came to fruition. And Powell’s description of affirmative action as needing to be clear and specific about racial injuries AND remedying a racist public policy is held up as the gold standard.

Honestly, I am not clear why Powell’s description has such weight.

The author also argues that the opponents of affirmative action have been super clear in their arguments against it. Those in favor of affirmative action haven’t been and must be.

Again I am not sure what these arguments should be other than they must follow Powell’s guidelines.

I feel like this book assumes intimate knowledge about the history of affirmative action and certain laws. (Portal to Portal Act? Taft-Hartley?)

Parts of the book were enlightening and made me think. I realized that WWII led blacks to experience treatment that they did not in the segregated US. Being treated as a human with respect and dignity in Europe made it difficult to return to the Jim Crow South or discriminatory North. The civil rights movement in part came out of the taste of first-class treatment that blacks GIs received abroad during the war.

However, I didn’t think about this same situation occurring after WWI. The 1920s, immediately after WWI, was a horrible time in terms of racism in the US. Not that other times were great but the 1920s saw a sharp rise in racism, e.g., lynchings, KKK hysteria. Why? The implication is that black GIs returned to a US where they were not treated as human beings. They needed to be controlled and forced back into the sub-human places the dominant white culture demanded they be.

The utterly disheartening and enraging point that surfaces again and again is the acquiescence to Southern demands that Southern culture (i.e., white supremacy) not be touched. State administration was demanded and the cry of states’ rights raised repeatedly.

I realized, thanks to this book, how completely US public policy has been hijacked by the South and their racist agenda. Blacks have not truly been free. The South dictates everything in all spheres of life. And non-Southern politicians have allowed the racism to persist and have helped prop it up. This is unconscionable.

State’s rights, which have always made me uneasy, are clearly code for racism and discrimination. Leaving states to decide how to implement federal programs or distribute money is kind of like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Not a good idea if you want to have hens. Or if you want federal programs to positively impact the economic and social betterment of all Americans.

Running an unknown race

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Listening to Terry Gross interview Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, I was struck by a statement that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor made about affirmative action.

“Affirmative action, as it existed when I was in school, was an opportunity to bring kids into a race that they didn’t even know was being run.”

“Yes!” I thought. “That is what affirmative action is all about.” Kids from less advantaged backgrounds due to race, economics, and social class simply do not know about the opportunities that come as a matter of course to those of us in more privileged positions in the US. This privilege is due to money and power. Let’s face it, often both are linked to race. Whether we realize it or not.

The middle class has money and power that those not in the middle class do not have. Whether we realize it or not. They live lives that those not in the middle class cannot even imagine because they do not exist in the same world. Have the same experiences. See the same roads unfold before them.

How can we expect those not raised in environments of money and power to know how to raise themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps if they do not even know that these bootstraps exist? Affirmative action is meant to open a crack of light into their world, to tell them about the races and bring them into the race. And then it is up to them to run. Carpe diem!