Policy Papers

When affirmative action was white

Ira Katznelson |

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Executive Summary

  • Hurricane Katrina's violent winds and waters tore away the shrouds that ordinarily mask the country's racial pattern of poverty and neglect. Understandably, most commentators focused on the woeful federal response. Others, taking a longer view, yearned for a burst of activism patterned on the New Deal. But that nostalgia requires a heavy dose of historical amnesia. It also misses the chance to come to terms with how the federal government in the 1930s and 1940s contributed to the persistence of two Americas.
  • In June 1965, President Lyndon Johnson asked in a sweeping and assertive address why the black population of the United States had fallen even further behind the country's white majority during the two decades since the end of the Second World War, despite the era's sustained national prosperity. Conceding that 'we are not completely sure why this is', he stressed the need to adopt bold new policies of affirmative action to remedy the disabilities following from two centuries of oppression.
  • Johnson missed the chance to assay how the major policies of the New Deal and Fair Deal of the 1930s and 1940s, inflected by the preferences of the southern wing of the Democratic Party, had massively advantaged American whites while often excluding African-Americans, especially the majority who still lived in the seventeen 'Jim Crow' southern states that mandated racial segregation.
  • Affirmative action from the 1960s, as it came to operate, focused mainly on opportunities for middle-class blacks seeking access to higher education and top-tier jobs. This affirmative action has worked to great effect, creating a more racially-just and diverse society than otherwise would have been the case. But the black affirmative-action programmes instituted since 1965 in fact were paltry in their scope and scale compared to the massive governmental transfers that disproportionately aided whites in the previous three decades, 1935-65.
  • Presently, many US politicians and much of the wider public are questioning the effectiveness of any kind of affirmative action in the face of continuing black disadvantage and the wider impact of globalisation on the population as a whole. Many view affirmative action as an expensive exercise that violates principles of merit of equal opportunity and that, in any event, has not achieved its original goals as enunciated by President Johnson in 1965. Further, there is no agreement or clarity about what, if anything, should be put in its place.
  • The almost exclusively white-targeted nature of the extensive federal legislation before 1965 has largely been ignored by policy analysts, just as it was by Lyndon Johnson. Thus, often without realising it, the United States has practised what, in effect, was white affirmative action on a highly generous and widespread basis, followed by a much more modest programme of black affirmative action. By understanding this history, we can come to terms with the widening gap between blacks and whites noted by Lyndon Johnson and with the incapacity of many blacks to be able to make good this gap in the following four decades.
  • The policy implications of a full appreciation of these features of modern US history, in short, are the opposite of currently popular views. Properly designed and funded, affirmative-action policies can work very effectively, but the ingrained bias in a white direction has to be acknowledged and transcended. If American politicians and public opinion are serious about racial equality, this history indicates the need to implement an affirmative-action programme as ambitious as that delivered to whites during the three decades before President Johnson spoke out in 1965. It is important to consider both the principles that could animate such an effort and to imagine the form it might take.


Although no single period can account for why race and class continue to be so closely entwined today, such a critical moment lies just behind us, during the administrations of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, when such great progressive national policies as Social Security, protective labor laws, and the GI Bill generated what I have called 'affirmative action for whites.' As a historian, I have tried to set this record straight. As a political scientist, I have sought to understand the mechanisms that made this history possible. As a citizen, I have sought to comprehend the implications of these past policies for possibilities today.

New Deal and fair deal

During Jim Crow's last hurrah in the 1930s and 1940s, when southern members of Congress controlled the gateways to legislation, policy decisions dealing with welfare, work, and war were repeatedly modified to exclude or treat differentially the vast majority of African Americans. Between 1945 and 1955, the federal government transferred unprecedented sums to support retirement and to fashion opportunities for job skills, education, homeownership, and small business formation. Together, these domestic programs dramatically reshaped the country's social structure by creating a modern, well-schooled, home-owning middle class.

Imagine two countries, one the richest in the world, the other amongst its most destitute. Then suppose a global program of foreign aid transferring well over $100 billion (more than six times the amount spent on Marshall Plan Aid in war-torn Europe), but to the rich nation, not the poor. This is exactly what happened as a result of the cumulative impact of the most important domestic policies of the 1930s and 1940s. Social Security began to pay old age pensions in 1939. By the end of the 1940s, its original provisions had been impressively improved. The GI Bill was the largest targeted fully national program of support in American history. The country passed new labor laws that promoted unions and protected people as they worked. The army was a great engine of skill training and mobility during the Second World War. None of these was a marginal or secondary program. To the contrary, individually and collectively they organized a revolution in the role of government that remade the country's social structure in dramatic, positive ways.

But most blacks were left out. The damage to racial equity caused by each program was immense. Taken together, the effects of these public laws were devastating. Social Security, from which the majority of blacks were excluded until well into the 1950s, quickly became the country's most important social legislation. The labor laws of the New Deal and Fair Deal created a framework of protection for tens of millions of workers who secured minimum wages, maximum hours, and the right to join industrial as well as craft unions. African Americans who worked on the land or as domestics- the great majority- lacked these protections. When unions made inroads in the South, where most blacks lived, moreover, Congress changed the rules of the game to make organizing much more difficult. Perhaps most surprising and most important, the treatment of veterans after the war, despite the universal eligibility for the benefits offered by the GI Bill (supposed to give assistance to all returning soldiers, regardless of colour), perpetuated the blatant racism that had marked the affairs of a still-segregated military service during the war itself. Southern members of Congress used occupational exclusions and took advantage of American federalism (the 'state rights' principle) to ensure that their region's racial order would not be disturbed by national policies. Benefits for veterans were administered locally and the GI Bill was adapted to 'the southern way of life' by accommodating to segregation in higher education, to the job ceilings local officials imposed on returning black soldiers who came home from a segregated army, and to an unwillingness to offer loans to blacks even when they were insured by the federal government. Of the 3,229 GI Bill guaranteed home, business, and farm loans made in 1947 in Mississippi, for example, only two were offered to black veterans. At no other time in American history has so much money and so many resources been put at the service of the generation completing education, entering the work force, and forming families. Comparatively little of this largesse was available to black veterans. With these policies, the Gordian Knot binding race to class tightened.

This is an unsettling history, especially for those of us who keenly admire the New Deal and Fair Deal. At the very moment a wide array of public policies were providing most white Americans with valuable tools to insure their old age, get good jobs, acquire economic security, build assets, and gain middle-class status, black Americans were mainly left to fend on their own. Ever since, American society has been confronted with the results of this twisted and unstated form of affirmative action.

A full generation of federal policy, lasting until the civil rights legislation and affirmative action of the 1960s, boosted whites into homes, suburbs, universities and skilled employment while denying the same or comparable benefits to black citizens. Despite the prosperity of postwar capitalism's golden age, an already immense gap between white and black Americans widened. Even today, after the great achievements of civil rights and affirmative action, wealth for the typical white family, mainly in homeownership, is ten times the average net worth for blacks, and a majority of African-American children in our cities subsist below the federal poverty line.

Civil rights

By contrast, Lyndon Johnson depicted policies for racial equity that would target 'the poor, the unemployed, the uprooted, and the dispossessed.' He famously noted that 'freedom is not enough' because 'you do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race and they say, "you are free to compete with all the others", and still justly believe you have been completely fair'. The past four decades have not been kind to this vision. It is important now, in the early 21st century, to retrieve Johnson's ambitious project by connecting the goals and precepts he enunciated to the history of racial bias that was deeply embedded in American social policy.

Johnson had in mind the kind of comprehensive effort the GI Bill had provided to most returning soldiers but without its racially exclusionary pattern of implementation. But that form of assertive, mass-oriented affirmative action never happened. By sustaining and advancing a growing African American middle class, the affirmative action we did get has done more to advance fair treatment across racial lines than any other recent public policy, and thus demands our respect and support. But as the scenes from New Orleans vividly displayed, so many who were left out before have been left out yet again.

Rather than yearn for New Deal policies that were tainted by racism, we would do better in present circumstances to return to the ambitious plans President Johnson announced but never realized to close massive gaps between blacks and whites, and between more and less prosperous blacks.

In the Supreme Court case in 1978 of the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Justice Lewis Powell, a quite conservative Republican, offered clear and strict standards for racial rectification. These guidelines, I believe, can help guide such a program. Powell argued that modifications to colour-blind policies could be undertaken to remedy race-based disadvantages when two conditions are met. There must be a clear and tight link connecting affirmative action's remedies to specific historical harms based on race. This tie between past action and present policy has to be strong and precise. More general claims about racism in the country's past are not enough. Neither can the goal to be pursued by affirmative action be vague or only of moderate importance. It must be sufficiently valuable as a social good to justify suspending rules that ordinarily must be blind to race. Further, if there is a non-racial way to pursue a given goal, that course should always be preferred. Powell insisted on these two principles-that racial injuries be specific and clear; and that a compelling public purpose must be identified when racial remedies are applied-because a colour-blind society is desirable and colour-coding is inherently susceptible to misuse.

Building on these principles has significant advantages. First, his demand for strict scrutiny appropriately sets the bar high, but not beyond reach. It balances a widely-shared desire to make colour-neutrality the dominant norm with the cheerless recognition that this goal cannot be achieved if the role race has played in American life is downplayed or, worse, ignored. As settled law, Powell's deeply historical approach has been applied to the type of affirmative action developed during the Johnson and Nixon administrations, but it also can shape and motivate a considerably broader effort that might target affirmative action at those who are less well-off.

Powell's distinctions placed the onus of proof on the character of the historical evidence that is deployed to justify rectification. A focus on the policies about welfare and work, as well as war and postwar, which the southern wing of the Democratic Party successfully imposed during the New Deal and Fair Deal is consistent with this requirement. They provide the content Powell requires to justify acts of official rectification.

Retrospectively, we can also see how Johnson's 1965 speech anticipated Powell's standards. The President's analysis of how the racial gap had widened, though deficient, sought to clarify the facts regarding the present status of blacks in American society. He provided a model of justification for affirmative action by summarizing the racial gap, arguing about causes, and spelling out why the divide distinguishing racial groups constitutes a major public concern. By taking these steps, he fulfilled Justice Powell's second stipulation. He also sought to connect his remedies to the causes he had identified. In this approach, he followed Justice Powell's first requirement.

Implications for affirmative action

Combining Powell's principles and Johnson's ambitions can push us forward to a framework for public policies that can respond to the injuries inflicted by officially-sanctioned racism. Though motivated by a desire to protect Jim Crow, many of the race-laden methods and instruments those programs utilized - including the exclusion of particular occupations and administrative decentralization - did not explicitly refer to race. A renewed and extended program of affirmative action could respond to such 'non-racial racism' by creating programs that cross racial lines even while being directed primarily at the rectification of racial injustice.

Beneficiaries must be targeted with clarity and care. The colour-blind critique argues that because race, as a group category, is morally unacceptable even when it is used to counter discrimination. But there is an important distinction, which this view misses. African American individuals have been discriminated against because they were black, and for no other reason. Obviously, this violates basic norms of fairness. But under affirmative action, they are compensated not for being black, but only because they were subject to unfair treatment at an earlier moment because they were black. If, for others, the policies also were unjust, they, too, must be included in the remedies. When, for instance, national policy kept out all farm workers and maids, the injury was not limited to African Americans. Nor should the remedy.

On this understanding it is important to identify the recipients of affirmative compensation who have a direct relationship to the harm being remedied. This does not mean that they necessarily had to experience a specific act of discrimination directly. To qualify, however, it needs to be shown how discriminatory institutions, decisions, actions, and practices have negatively affected their circumstances. This approach does not limit remedies to individuals who have faced injustice directly, one at a time; neither does it justify remedies for African Americans as a unitary of exclusive group that has shared in a history of racism except when the harm, as in military segregation, was created with unambiguously racist categories.

Popular and political support for corrective justice, in short, as well as judicial legitimacy, will depend on the clarity and persuasiveness of the association between harms and remedies. One of two approaches is possible. A closely-targeted program of rectification would search for identifiable individuals who have been harmed, even at the distance of one or two generations, by the pattern of exclusions and local administration, which have been documented in the book, When Affirmative Action was White. This policy could yield both tangible and symbolic compensation. As examples:

  • For the lag in entering the Social Security system, the excluded could be identified and they, or their heirs, could be offered one-time grants that would have to be paid into designated retirement funds.
  • For the absence of access to the minimum wage, tax credits to an equivalence of the average loss could be tendered.
  • For the lack of access to key programs under the GI Bill, programs of subsidized mortgages, small business loans, and educational grants could now be put in place.
  • These measures could be targeted to those who stand in a direct line to those who were harmed, but both to keep their costs in check and target spending on those most in need, they would also be available only up to a particular level before being taxed back.

Alternatively, a less administratively burdensome but still exacting approach could be crafted. With this design, the broad target group for assertive federal policies would be poor Americans who face conditions produced by the constellation of the patterns of eligibility and administration the South placed upon the most important New Deal and Fair Deal programs. Although less exact at the individual and family level, this approach would authorize a major assault on inequality and poverty that would be justified by these historical patterns and remedied by policy interventions offering boosts into middle class status. The major instruments would be the same as those the federal government utilized in the GI Bill: subsidized mortgages, generous grants for education and training, small business loans, and active job searching and placement. This line of attack on the legacies of exclusion also could deploy an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, assure generous child care, and guarantee basic health insurance.

Either way, it is not only the persons, or group of people, who have to be identified, but the specific qualities of racial discrimination. There is something of a hierarchy. Individual private acts of prejudice and discrimination count for less than more pervasive institutional ones. Injuries dealt by government count for more than private patterns of institutional racism. When government is directly involved, claims for systemic compensation to match systemic harm become most compelling. Public policies, after all, have been the most decisive instruments dividing Americans into different racial groups with vastly different life circumstances and possibilities.

Speaking from the French Quarter in New Orleans in mid-September of this year, President George W. Bush recognized that Hurricane Katrina has revealed 'deep, persistent poverty' with 'roots in a history of racial discrimination'. Any serious search for what he called 'bold policies' might begin by taking both the history of affirmative action for whites and Lyndon Johnson's urgency and prescriptions to heart. For without an unsentimental historical understanding of the policy roots of black isolation and dispossession, the response to the disaster in the Gulf states will remain no more than a gesture.

Further Reading

Desmond King, Separate and Unequal: Black Americans and the US Federal Government (Oxford University Press, 1995).

Daniel Kryder, Divided Arsenal: Race and the American State During World War Two (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Robert Lieberman, Shifting the Color Line: Race and the American Welfare State (Harvard University Press, 1998).

John Skrentny, The Ironies of Affirmative Action: Politics, Culture, and Justice in America (University of Chicago Press, 1996).


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