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

Review of When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America , by Ira Katznelson (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2005), preface, appendix, index, 238 pp.

It can occasionally be a difficult issue to finesse. I was presiding over a classroom of about twenty undergraduate students, trying desperately to moderate a discussion on the legacies of the civil rights movement. It started the way it normally does, "The movement gave blacks equality; I don't see how you can approach it as anything other than a victory. It solved America's race problem." I smiled gently and waited for the standard rebuttal, "The United States still has a race problem! Just look at our inner cities and crime among black youth and poverty among minorities. Civil rights was about more than the right to vote!"

The exchange seems so familiar because it cuts across so many of the fault lines that define contemporary public discourse. Call it the difference between red states and blue states, the suburbs and the city, or white individuals and black individuals; many Americans simply disagree over how the United States should remember and interpret the social revolutions of the 1960s and early 1970s.

One can speculate that Ira Katznelson has been listening to some version of this exchange since he first entered academia in 1969. Having written extensively on urban politics and liberalism, his new book, When Affirmative Action Was White (2005), jumps into the fray by analyzing the issue of affirmative action. The book is held together by one overarching theme. As New Deal politicians began constructing government programs to deal with welfare, work, and war in the 1930s and 1940s, they deliberately excluded or treated differently the vast majority of African Americans. The central reason, according to Katznelson, was because Democratic leaders needed the support of southern representatives in Congress to pass their ambitious legislative programs. Framing the entire New Deal coalition as a Faustian bargain between white progressives and white segregationists, the author shows how the South used its influence to gain local control over federally-funded government projects.

The result was that federal aid in the South became contingent on southern Jim Crow. At the exact moment when the "activist" state was giving whites the tools to create a robust middle class, African Americans were being systematically isolated from the benefits of public assistance. Stated differently, "affirmative action" did not emerge as a new program in the late 1960s. According to Katznelson, it had deep roots in the 1930s and played an active role in exacerbating the socio-economic chasm between whites and blacks in the post-World War II years.

When Affirmative Action Was White elaborates on this core theme in four stages. First, the author looks at how African Americans were denied access to economic relief during the New Deal. Although many federal officials understood that black sharecroppers were the hardest hit group during the Great Depression, a full 65 percent of African Americans were denied access to social security benefits, government grants, elderly poor assistance, and unemployment insurance. Administered by local politicians throughout the South, New Deal relief programs were simply not given to the vast majority of African Americans. The result was the deepening of black rural poverty.

Similarly, southern segregationists skewed the natural direction of worker reform. Positioning the National Labor Relations Act (1935) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) as key moments in America's modern labor movement, Katznelson shows how southern congressmen incorporated provisions into legislation that exempted agricultural and domestic labor. Consequently, while white workers throughout the United States gained the means to organize and improve their standard of living, the sectors dominated by African American workers were left to languish in further poverty. When blacks finally gained access to some industrial jobs during World War II, southern congressmen conveniently abandoned labor reform and helped pass the Republican Party's Taft-Hartley Act (1947). According to Katznelson, Taft-Hartley not only placated the labor movement in the South, but it also decoupled the burgeoning connections between civil rights agitation and demands for economic equality.

The final two prongs of When Affirmative Action Was White look at the wartime experiences of African Americans and the discriminatory dimensions of the G.I. Bill. While white ethnics from eastern and southern Europe experienced a revolutionary transformation in their status as American citizens because of their participation in World War II, blacks experienced segregation in the armed forces. In the years that followed the war this exclusion resulted in a cruel catch-22, as most African Americans were denied access to the resources of the Selective Service Readjustment Act (1944) because they had not served in the military. The federal government stepped in to pay mortgages for white veterans and upgrade educational institutions throughout the country, but most African Americans watched these developments from the sidelines. The cumulative effect of these policies was the widening of the economic gap along racial lines.

When Affirmative Action Was White concludes with the recommendation that contemporary American policymakers deal with these legacies by reexamining Lyndon Johnson's original vision for affirmative action. Relying heavily on Johnson's 1965 Howard University Commencement Address, the author posits that the 37th President of the United States understood the importance of ambitiously attacking the root causes of discrimination. Katznelson suggests, toward this end, that rather than providing additional resources for a thriving black middle class, the federal government should create a temporary aid program to uplift the urban and rural poor who have been most afflicted by racial discrimination. An extension of affirmative action, in the author's mind, would end the need for state-sponsored compensation within a generation and create a truly "color-blind" society.

When Affirmative Action Was White offers a worthwhile contribution to the debate over affirmative action, but not without shortcomings. First, Katznelson's argument would be more compelling with a better exposition of how New Deal and Fair Deal programs secured the social well-being of white ethnic groups. Demonstrating the discriminatory features of federal programs is not necessarily the same thing as proving that they functioned as "affirmative action" for eastern and southern Europeans. The author briefly comments on the experiences of Catholics and Jews in his chapter on World War II; these comments could be elaborated and deepened.

On a more substantial level, Katznelson's emphasis on the culpability of southern representatives in Congress is not completely satisfactory. As a range of scholarship has demonstrated in recent years, racism has been as prevalent and debilitating in Northern urban centers as in Southern agricultural areas.1 By hearkening upon the specific actions of southern congressmen, the author conveys the impression that a "lost moment" of racial egalitarianism was somehow squandered during the New Deal. His argument is appealing because it suggests that America's racial difficulties could have been avoided with better decisions at the federal level, but it is too simplistic to be taken seriously. A more complex framework would consider the interaction between government policy and the northern migration of blacks in the middle years of the twentieth century.

Katznelson believes very passionately that robust public policy could have redressed America's racial chasm. Stated more explicitly, the author longs for a time when liberalism informed the principles of the federal government. It seems ironic, against this backdrop, that Katznelson devotes only a single sentence to the social upheavals that undermined Johnson's expansive vision for affirmative action during the 1960s and 1970s. By ignoring the events that have reoriented American politics and placed affirmative action supporters on the defensive, the author's suggestions come off as sincere and well-informed, but somewhat unrealistic. To state the obvious, the principles of liberalism no longer shape policymaking in Washington, DC.

It is unlikely that disagreements over affirmative action will diminish in the near future. When Affirmative Action Was White offers much for those hoping to participate in this debate; its message should be taken as a serious reminder that state-sponsored racial discrimination has affected all Americans. Whether Katznelson's book will definitively "turn the tide" against affirmative action's opponents, however, will remain to be seen. Until then, I will continue moderating my classroom debates and watching the differences between Americans grow.


1 For more complex frameworks see Thomas Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis, Bruce Nelson, Divided We Stand, Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight, and Matthew Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color