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When affirmative action was white: the work of Ira Katznelson

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The extraordinary protest movement that has followed the death of George Floyd underlines how extremely relevant this Policy Paper published 15 years ago by Professor Ira Katznelson remains

Derived from his book, When Affirmative Action was White, in this Policy Paper Professor Katznelson examined the ways in which public policy during the Roosevelt and Truman years was shaped by southern members of Congress to conform to the racial rules and norms of Jim Crow segregation. Two mechanisms predominated: the exclusion of farm and domestic workers from union and labour market protections, and the decision to implement the landmark GI Bill of unprecedented benefits for Second World War veterans through state and local, rather than national, forms of administration. 

The latter was especially meaningful. Having come home from service in a still-racially segregated military, black as well as white soldiers were officially eligible for a generous raft of economically valuable pick-me-ups to help them get on with their lives on returning home, including access to free higher education, vocational training, job placement, small business loans, and subsidized home mortgages. The GI Bill benefits were looked on with pride. The USA may not have built a welfare state but it did give a headstart to its brave young men.

Or did it? Professor Katznelson’s careful research exposed exactly how, in the detailed workings of the US politics of states-rights, these valuable advantages in life were carefully circumscribed for most black servicemen. So, in effect USA after World War II indulged in a massive policy of racially-discriminatory ‘affirmative action’ favouring the already-privileged young white men and helping them get even further ahead of the black comrades they had fought alongside. The GI Bill, though noble in conception, in fact was shameful in the way its provisions were put into practice.

Martin Luther King was candidly asked 20 years after the end of World War II why it was that black Americans, unlike other immigrants to the country, seemed to fail to thrive economically. He patiently pointed out, that first, unlike all other immigrants they were brought against their will in chains and placed in slavery for generations. Second, when they were finally emancipated by Lincoln’s 1863 Proclamation, they were given no economic base for their new independence. This was in stark contrast to the white peasants entering the USA from Europe at this time, who were granted title to millions of acres in the West and mid-West. Professor Katznelson documented a third important way in which yet another generation of black American citizens were systematically economically disadvantaged by the white majority controlling government in the states where most of them lived.

Martin Luther King’s legacy included the success of the 1960s civil rights movement in belatedly achieving formal political inclusion for all black Americans. But the five decades since then have seen economic and social inequality in US society rise to new extremes. Inevitably this has been to the greatest disadvantage of those who were already poorest in the 1960s, which included the vast majority of black Americans and their communities. A tragic consequence for the whole of American society is that it has since moved further way from the policies of economic and social integration represented by the most egalitarian aspects of the New Deal and the civil rights movement. The USA today has instead become a society which segregates and incarcerates its poor on a scale not seen in democracies elsewhere. This has inevitably assumed a strong racial dimension, which has now thoroughly poisoned the attitudes and operational practices of too many of the police forces themselves.

The New York City Mayor’s announcement that he will divert money from the city's police department to social services represents an acknowledgement that integration and incarceration are sharply political choices and that the noble ideals enshrined in the US constitution mean nothing without substantial policies by elected governments whose practical consequences are affirmatively black, not white.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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