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.

Middle class as the buffer

I was struck by the use (dare I say manipulation?) of the middle class leading up to the American Revolution. Zinn describes a class of artisans that grew up between the social, political, and economic elites and the poor, who were often the indentured folk in the colonies. The struggle of the elites in colonial times was to retain their power and somehow get others in the colonies to take their side over the British. How to rally the masses from supporting one elite to supporting another? The American elite appealed to the nascent middle class with calls for liberty and property. (Give me liberty or give me death.)

How familiar this sounds even today. The political and financial elites rally the masses with fears of liberties being taken away…speech, arms, search and seizure, etc. Some fears are justified, some not so justified, some manipulated. The non-elites are promised the opportunity for property, for a slice of the pie that the elites hold, but only if they buy into the system and lend their support to the elites.

There is nothing about equality in these discussions—then or now. (In fact, equality is often depicted as somehow un-American.) But equality, or the more equal distribution of wealth, is what allows the middle class to exist and the American dream to be anything more than a cruel illusion. Without equality, wealth concentrates among the elites. The economy and society become more and more unstable.

What protects the elites from the masses? The bones thrown to the masses in the form of a middle class, the promise that you too can acquire some wealth. America, after all, is the land of opportunity, right?

What happens when the middle class is no longer there to be a buffer between the haves-all and the have-nots?

Voting does not set you free


Helen Keller’s comments on wealth inequality and the impact of voting resonate over a hundred years later.

“Our democracy is but a name. We vote? What does that mean? It means that we choose between two bodies of real, though not avowed, autocrats. We choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee…

You ask for votes for women. What good can votes do when ten-elevenths of the land of Great Britain belongs to 200,000 and only one-eleventh to the rest of the 40,000,000? Have your men with their millions of votes freed themselves from this injustice?”

~ Helen Keller, 1911 to a suffragist in England (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States)

Movie review: Inequality for All (2013)

Why does economic equality matter? Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor and current professor, addresses three questions in a Berkeley class he teaches. What is happening in terms of the distribution of income and wealth, why, and is this a problem?

The answer to the last question is a resounding yes. Income inequality definitely does matter. It erodes our economy and jeopardizes democracy through social instability.

What makes an economy stable? A middle class.

What sustains an economy? Consumer spending. Seventy percent of the US economy is made up of consumer spending.

Who spends? The wealthy? Well, yes, but they can only spend (and consume) so much. The real engine of consumer spending—and the US economy—is the middle class.

And what has been happening to the middle class? It has been disappearing.

Reich maps the forces that lead to a middle class, consumption, and a strong economy: higher wages, increased consumption, increased employment, increased tax revenue, increased investment in education, better jobs. This virtuous cycle existed from 1947 through 1977. But then went off the rails.

What changed? Several things. Manufacturing moved abroad, which decreased the number of jobs and the wages of those jobs. The technical revolution meant that any good jobs required higher education. Financial deregulation revealed that the rules on which the market operated had changed.

Wages flatlined in the late ’70s. How have people coped with flattening wages? How have they tried to maintain the middle class standing of living? We tried three strategies. Women went to work. People worked more hours. People borrowed, often against their homes. But the number of women who can enter the workforce, the number of hours one can work, and the amount of debt one can accrue is finite.

The result? People are sliding out of the middle class into poverty.

Along with the flattening of wages since the late ’70s, costs—housing, health care, childcare, collage—have skyrocketed. Suddenly the chance to make it and move upward economically was no longer viable.

Forty percent of children born in poverty will not get out of poverty.

Forty percent.

(The optimist in me cheers the sixty percent that escape.) What lifts people out of poverty? Higher education. Investing in people and investing in the workforce is crucial for a healthy economy.

But we stopped investing. In fact, we divested. Decreased taxes meant less revenue to put towards places of higher education. Individual people could not afford the increases in higher education or went into massive debt to acquire it.

So what is there to do? As Reich points out, the “free” market is actually run by rules. The government sets these rules. Recently the government has been deciding on rules that deregulate the financial sector, that recognize corporations as people and thereby allow massive amounts of money in politics, and that divest in people—the economic engine.

Does this mean that government is bad as we have been led to believe? No. It just means government needs to change the rules by which the market functions. As one wealthy entrepreneur in the movie mentioned, government needs to do this through “middle class economics” (i.e., economics focused on enabling the middle class), not “trickle down economics”.

Is Inequality for All an informative movie? Yes. Will it get you thinking about issues that helped lead to the crisis of 2008? Yes. Will it help change things? Maybe. First you need to recognize and understand the problem before solving it. Robert Reich in Inequality for All seeks to inform and get you thinking, whatever your political persuasion.