I’ll concede that Ira Katznelson created an interesting book title with When Affirmative Action Was White. It’s a sensational claim which he fails to substantiate. In short, Ira argues that public policy is the primary reason why blacks1 and whites in America are distinct (non-integrated) groups today and why blacks continue to experience economic disparity. Specifically, Ira accuses the New Deal and Fair Deal policies and programs and the GI Bill of being racially motivated and discriminatory against black people. He uses that skewed view of history to conclude that affirmative action is both warranted and necessary.
The historical reality is quite a bit different from Ira’s spurious claims. To be sure, overt racism existed in the South in the mid 1900s: “You cannot put the Negro and the white man on the same basis and get away with it,” said one Democrat. (p.60) However, because Republicans didn’t have enough votes to pass New Deal programs alone, they needed Southern Democratic votes to pass them. This because Jim Crow laws limited black suffrage, and because swelling black populations were dutifully counted for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives, giving Southern senators considerable political power. So “Southern [democrats] traded their votes [on New Deal legislation like the FLSA] for the exclusion of farm workers and maids [mostly black]” (p.55) Republicans made this pact with the devil because “coverage of agricultural labor would have resulted in defeat of the bill in congress” (p. 58) However, they had this decision– would they rather have New Deal socially progressive programs that helped some blacks (perhaps not to the same degree as whites) or no New Deal programs at all? They chose the first option. As a result, “as in the instance of earlier New Deal relief, blacks gained tangible assets in hard times they otherwise would not have secured.” (p. 48)
Ira writes that at first Southern Democrats supported pro-union legislation because it didn’t materially affect the South, but once unions started to appear in the South they opposed them. This line of argument presupposes that unions are always good and are a hallmark of democratic progression. The stagnant economy of pro-union France and the recent collapse of the US auto industry (due in large part to lack of competitiveness owing to giant concessions made to unions) are proof that unions are not universally agreed upon as beneficial to society.
Ira also shows that the FLSA excluded many black workers when instituting a minimum wage. That again assumes that a minimum wage is always beneficial. There are many economists who have shown that a minimum wage puts people out of work, increases competition among those workers who are left and results in people who want to work not being able to find it.
Ira tries to argue that the South was immoral for supporting the New Deal and then immoral again for opposing it. Regardless of their morality, there are many reasons why that initial Southern support of the New Deal benefited black people: 1. labor organizing fueled civil rights activism, 2. FLSA caused wage leveling, 3. the creation of a fluid national labor market induced poor black rural labor to leave the South, 4. unemployment compensation diminished incentives that kept black workers in the fields. (p 68)
In an over-simplistic effort, he presents Southern politicians as monolithically, one-dimensionally racially motivated. He does not consider that the possibility of other motivations such as belief in States’ Rights, and the merits of a limited national government, for example.
Claiming that the military was discriminatory, Ira states, “By war’s end, some 11 percent of white men in the military were officers, but fewer than 1 percent of blacks, even though their aspirations were high.” Aspirations do not an officer qualify. Ira had only pages earlier mentioned that illiteracy and poor education was rampant among blacks. It should at least be considered that in the military’s meritocracy, officers were chosen from a pool of those who were higher educated. Ira counters this argument with his conjecture, “positions… that black soldiers did not enjoy were secured by whites, many of whom entered the military with limited experience, weak schooling, poor horizons and a provincial understanding.” (p. 111) Conveniently, Ira failed to include a reference footnote next to that statement.
Ira argues that because the GI bill was locally administered, it provided limited assistance to blacks, yet scholar Mettler disagrees, saying the GI Bill “represented the most egalitarian and generous program Black American had experienced, far more inclusive than New Deal social programs.” (p 121)
Next, attempting to show higher education was discriminatory, Ira writes, “Of the nine thousand students at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946… only 46 were black.” (p. 130) Excluded were statistics on how many Blacks applied to that University, the black population in Pennsylvania in 1946 and the qualifications of the applicants. There are few black students at UVU, for example, but that doesn’t make the admission staff racist.
After his compelling history lesson, Ira then lists the features of Affirmative Action as it is currently practiced in the United States: “require[s] employers and educators take race into account” (p. 146), “policies gave advantages, even actual points, to membership in a specific racial group… black individuals could be chosen even if white applicants had more appropriate qualifications judges by customary measures like grades and test scores” (p.146), “require[s] that minority workers … be hired in rough proportion to their percentage in the local labor force” (p. 147), and “sanction[s] the use of racial goals and timetables in federal government hiring.” (p. 148) He then uses a common debating technique of mentioning the opposing arguments. Unfortunately for Ira, simply mentioning the tenets of the opposite side doesn’t discredit them. He provides compelling quotations from three Supreme Court Justices which weaken his argument in favor of Affirmative Action:
Justice Rehnquist — “the evil inherent in discrimination against Negros is its grounding in an immutable characteristic, utterly irrelevant to employment decisions, discrimination is no less evil if it offers preferential treatment to blacks” (p.151)
Justice Thomas — “every time the government places citizens on racial registers and makes race relevant to the provision of burdens or benefits, it demeans us all.”
Justice Scalia — “restorative justice…is inherently not right and not constitutional. The affirmative action system now in place… would produce perverse results that would prefer the son of a prosperous and well-educated black doctor or lawyer solely because of his race– to the son of a recent refugee from Eastern Europe who is working as a manual laborer to get his family ahead because it is based upon concepts of racial indebtedness and racial entitlement rather than individual worth and individual need; that is to say, because it is racist. This new form of racial presumption simply is wrong because it traduces color-blind standards. From racist principle… flow racist results. (p.155)
What Ira fails to admit is that it is disingenuous to rail against Jim Crow’s racial segmentation as unethical and, in the same breath state it is permissible to discriminate against another class of people in a short-sited attempt to remedy the situation. Discrimination is always wrong, regardless of the name. So-called “corrective justice” against white people today for crimes committed by others of their same race in the past is no justice at all—besides failing the constitutional requirement of equal protection (14th amendment), it “damages the equality of individuals, undermines merit and stigmatizes the members of the group it advantages” (p.155) As well, “affirmative action can increase racial animosities, reduce standards in hiring and admissions, and damage the self-respect of its beneficiaries.” (p.158)
Ira received his inspiration for the book, from President Johnson’s speech “To Fulfill These Rights” given at Howard University. In that speech, Johnson identifies the economic separation between the average white and average black person and promises to go beyond freedom, beyond equality to correct the situation.
Through all the pandering rhetoric, in a section called Family Breakdown, President Johnson correctly identified the cause of the hardships of Black America– “perhaps most important– its influence radiating to every part of life– is the breakdown of the Negro family structure… less than half if all Negro children reach the age of 18 having lived all their lives with both of their parents. At this moment, tonight, little less than two-thirds are at home with both of their parents… The family is the cornerstone of our society. More than any other force it shapes the attitude, the hopes, the ambitions and the values of the child. And when the family collapses it is the children that are usually damaged. When it happens on a massive scale the community itself is crippled.” (p.179)
Indeed, the causes of turmoil within any society or sub-society can often be directly linked to challenges to the traditional family formation, well beyond anything caused by public policy. As evidence, examine the influence of black male role models: athletes and rap music singers—neither of which historically respect women or the traditional family.
In conclusion, Ira’s goal, to “extend affirmative action in order to end it within one generation.” (p 172) at least betrays his knowledge (whether explicitly admitted or not) that affirmative action is at its core simply not fair, not just and not beneficial to society. If it were, why would he want to end it?
1- Using the term African American to apply to all black skinned people in the United States is misguided. For one, it’s not universally applied (are Egyptians-Americans African American? How about white skinned people from South Africa?) If we’re talking about all black skinned people, why leave out black skinned people not from the continent of Africa (like some groups of people from India, certain islands, etc.)?