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.

TV movie review: Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana–Split Rails to Steel Rails

Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana is a PBS documentary series based on the book by famous Indiana historian James H. Madison. The documentary series is split into four parts: Birth of a State, Split Rails to Steel Rails, the 20th Century, and the Next Indiana.

Split Rails to Steel Rails covers the period of time from the Civil War to World War I and focuses on war, business, and culture. The documentary is narrated by Madison and includes interviews with various people, like the Editorial Page Editor of the Northwest Indiana Times (Marc Chase) and a retired Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court (Randall J. Shepherd).

War seems to hold a special place in the Hoosier state, and Indiana has more than its share of war memorials. Indiana sent the most men to fight in the Civil War, second only to Delaware—two-thirds of eligible-aged Indiana men served in the Civil War. Troops were organized by ethnic groups and counties, which meant that they were often fighting side-by-side with family and neighbors.

Lew Wallace, later known as the author of Ben-Hur, selected the site of what was the State Fairgrounds—and what is currently Military Park—as the site for training volunteers. This training site—Camp Morton, named after the governor during the Civil War—morphed into a POW camp.

From 1862 to 1865, Colonel Richard Owen managed this camp of 3,000 POWs. Despite 50 prisoners dying per month, after the end of the war, the prisoners raised funds to have a sculpture of Owen made in honor of the humaneness he showed told the Confederate soldiers in the camp. (You can see the sculpture in the Indiana Statehouse.)

Governor Morton had a decidedly difficult time financially supporting the Union and funding the government. Democrat Copperheads, or those Democrats who didn’t support the Union, controlled the legislature and blocked the state contributing money to the Union cause. In a seemingly modern-day move, the Republicans fled the legislature so no quorum was possible. In retaliation, the Democrats decided not to dispense ANY money, which meant that the Indiana government risked grinding to a halt.

In an attempt to keep the government running, Governor Morton turned to the Madison banker James Lanier for funding. In 1861, the two decided that Lanier would buy $400,000 worth of bonds—perhaps not quite an above-board tactic—to prevent government shutdown.

How much of the war was waged on Indiana soil? Not much. The only battle was Morgan’s Raid in 1863, when Confederate troops crossed the Ohio River at Corydon. They blazed a path of destruction, mistakenly thinking that sympathizers to the Southern cause would rise up. None did. (I recently learned of another foray across the river, by Adam “Stovepipe” Johnson at Newburgh. Basically, Johnson’s foray was a hit and run excursion, intent on gathering supplies and firearms before retreating back over the river.)

Originally, Indiana settlements existed by waterways, the quickest means of transportation that connected communities. But in the second half of the 1800s came the railroad, which changed the pattern of population in the state. The steepest incline was in Madison; the Reuben Wells steam engine, specifically made for the Madison incline, can be seen at the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis became a transportation hub for the railroads. In 1853, the first Union Station, meant to be one station shared by all railroads, was built in Indianapolis. By 1890, 120 trains were stopping in Indianapolis every day.

An equally impressive system of interurbans crisscrossed Indiana towns. Eventually, with the rise of the automobile (that had an incredible early history in Indiana) came the demise of the interurbans. (The only one that exists today is the South Shore.)

Indiana was a big center of business, from the Ball Company in Muncie to Eli Lilly, L.S. Ayres, and Madam C.J. Walker in Indianapolis. The limestone of southern Indiana was quarried for buildings such as the statehouse (1886) and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument (1902). In the 1870s, the coal mines suffered through strikes and unions, resulting in the firing of workers and the hiring of their children. (Children were less apt to cause trouble or unionize, and could be paid less.)

Into this maelstrom came Eugene V. Debs. Originally he believed that the best course of action for workers was to do a good job; managers would recognize the good work with good pay. Eventually, faced with reality, he changed his views and organized unions (the railroad union in 1894) and strikes (think the Pullman strike). Change, he saw, was only possible through politics. In his core, he believed in the dignity of all people.

In the late 1800s, 13% of the population in Indianapolis was German. German immigrants looked around at the culture and traditions around them and concluded that it was lacking in refinement (ouch!). Instead, they created their own vibrant society with German organizations, clubs, symphonies, theatre, and schools.

World War I destroyed the German culture in Indiana. Kurt Vonnegut, famous 20th century Hoosier author, described how he was raised ignorant of the rich heritage of German music, literature, culture, and language—all because Germans in the early 20th century assumed that ignorance of their culture and traditions was necessary in order to be patriotic. Bits and pieces still exist today as German festivals or the Athenaeum (Das Deutsche Haus, which incidentally Vonnegut’s father was an architect for) in Indianapolis.

The documentary continues with a third part that looks at Indiana from World War I to the present time.

The Eugene V. Debs House

As I approached, I saw the front door propped open, inviting passers-by in. This was my second trip to the house, my first visit thwarted by unforeseen circumstances that caused the museum to be closed.

Debs was a figure from the past that I was aware of but didn’t have more than a passing knowledge of until I moved back to Indiana. I knew he was big in the labor movement in the 1920s. I had channeled his spirit and that of John Reed’s as I gave a barnstormer of a speech to “accept” the sudden nomination of president of the Toastmaster’s group I belonged to. (During my speech, I received one “Viva la revolution!” from the audience…as well as looks of horror at the liberal views of labor I was espousing. Clearly not everyone is a Debs fan.)

Needless to say, I was excited to finally see the inside of the Debs house in Terra Haute, which is a museum to his life and work. I tiptoed in to find the new Director Allison at the start of a house tour with four other visitors. Allison warmly welcomed me and I was treated to an excellent tour of the house and the objects in it. Allison is wonderfully versed in Debs. (The only question I remember stumping her with was the identity of the three French philosophers in the attic mural—philosophers that influenced Debs. Turns out they were Victor Hugo, Eugene Sue, and Voltaire.)

Debs built the house in 1890. After his wife Kate died in 1936, the house became in succession the home of a professor, apartments, and a fraternity (!). Its latest incarnation as a museum started in 1965, helped along by Debs’ niece Marguerite who donated many items to the museum. (A picture of her and Eugene grace a table in the front room.) In 1966, the house became the 11th National Historic Landmark in Indiana.

Debs was originally a Democrat in the Indiana General Assembly and involved in organizing workers. A pivotal moment for him came in 1895 when the railroad union that he helped found went on strike—the Pullman Strike. He was thrown in prison for six months for defying the court injunction against the strike. (He was represented by Clarence Darrow. Yes, that Clarence Darrow of the later Scopes Trial. Unfortunately, Deb and Darrow lost in court.)

During Debs’ time in jail, the well-known socialist Victor Bergman visited him and gave him socialist works to read. (The museum contains the copy of Marx’s Capital that Berger signed and gave to Debs when Debs was in prison.) Debs emerged from jail as a socialist.

Debs ran five times as a Socialist Party presidential candidate, the last time from prison for a different sentence. (He campaigned as Convict No. 9653). For this prison sentence, he was charged with violating the Sedition Act and given 10 years. (He had given a speech in Atlanta, which led to charges that he encouraged men to dodge the draft.) After two and a half years, due to deteriorating health, President Harding commuted his sentence but did not pardon him.

The museum is chock full of items of historical significance. (Thank you, Marguerite!) A beautiful wooden inlay table is on display on the first floor, a gift from a fellow inmate at the Atlanta Federal Prison as thanks for all Debs has done. In the corner of this room, stands a bust of Debs, made by Louis Mayer at sittings between Debs’ trial. (Another casting exists in the Smithsonian.) In the kitchen hangs the original charter of the Vigo Lodge Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen of Terre Haute, 1875—Debs became a locomotive fireman in 1871.

Copies of letters to and from James Whitcomb Riley occupy a bed table in the room that Riley often used when he visited Debs. This room also includes copies of books important to Debs: Them Flowers (a Riley book dedicated to Debs), a signed copy of The Jungle, Emma Goldman’s Anarchy, and Marx’s Capital (the one with Bergman’s inscription).

An original 1904 ballot from Otego Township in Fayette County, IL that lists Debs as the Socialist Party presidential candidate hangs in an upstairs room. A picture of the 1906 state convention of the Socialist Party in front of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in downtown Indy sits on a desk. Issues of Appeal to Reason, a weekly socialist newspaper that he edited, lay open to read.

A letter to Senator Birch Bayh from the Attorney General discussing Debs citizenship status hangs in another room. The letter dated August 30, 1977 clarifies that Debs did not lose his citizenship after violating the Espionage [and Sedition] Act in 1918. (Not sure why that needing clarifying but an interesting tidbit of history.)

The walls of the third floor are completely filled with murals depicting Debs’ life. Created by John Laska, a Professor of Art at Indiana State University in 1979, the murals are in pristine condition. In them I saw many of the things that Allison discussed as we toured the house. And then she pointed out Susan B. Anthony, whom Debs had brought to Terre Haute for a lecture.

I had to ask. Has Bernie, who has a picture of Debs in his office, visited the museum? As Allison explained, he tried to in May when he was in Indy for a rally (where I saw him!). Unfortunately, due to the crowds that gathered, his Secret Service detail decided that they couldn’t secure the house. Interestingly, decades earlier Bernie gave a speech at the annual Eugene V. Debs award ceremony. The recipient? Indianapolis native Kurt Vonnegut.

Eugene Debs believed that social injustice and poverty led to crime, and fought to alleviate conditions that bred crime. Debs worked for the 40-hour work week, child labor laws, collective bargaining, and equal pay for women.

Stop by the Eugene V. Debs House in Terre Haute to learn for yourself about the man and his work. The museum is an excellent collection and the Director will take you on an outstanding tour of the museum and his life.

In the words of a former Toastmasters comrade, Viva la revolution! And a belated Happy Labor Day, Eugene Debs!