Ira Katznelson makes the case that to understand the issues surrounding affirmative action one must begin not from the perspective of the 1960s, but go back to the New Deal legislation of the 1930s. In his book When Affirmative Action Was White he describes how the social legislation of the 1930s and 1940s that was intended to help the large fraction of the population in need was constructed in such a way as to exclude most blacks and some other minorities. The result was, in effect, affirmative action for whites. As a result of these government actions the divergence in the economic health of the white and the black populations grew even greater.
This part of our history is unfamiliar to the typical citizen. If affirmative action is intended to redress grievances for past behavior, then it should be cast with a full understanding of all the grievances involved. Katznelson’s study leads him to conclude that a totally different program is required. As we shall see, his most viable approach need not be based on race at all.
To understand the structure of the New Deal era legislation it is necessary to understand the political realities of the period. Roosevelt’s party, the Democratic Party, was made up of two components: a southern bloc that was liberal in terms of social legislation as long as no effect would be seen on their racial caste system, and a non-southern bloc that was eager to pursue progressive legislation. The Republican Party was fiscally conservative and pro-business. The southern bloc would align with the other Democrats when convenient or with the Republicans if necessary to protect their racial system. Roosevelt could not be elected president without the votes of the southern states, and he could not pass any of his social legislation without the support of the southern legislators. Consequently, any legislation passed had to be consistent with the maintenance of the "southern way of life."
The "southern way of life" has always been based on maintaining a low-wage work force—and it still is today. The region had a mostly agricultural basis that required a large supply of manual labor. Slavery was the initial solution. When that was prohibited, it turned to convict labor and sharecropping as means of keeping the cost of labor low. The South was actually pro-union, or at least neutral to labor unions until they began to make inroads in the region and people began to worry about the tendency to treat whites and blacks more like equals. At that point the southern politicians teamed with the pro-business Republicans to pass legislation that crippled the union movement.
It should be noted that all the efforts to maintain low wages for blacks also hindered the southern white population. The caste system required that blacks be kept in poverty, but it also required that a population of whites must be maintained at a level just above that of the blacks. The role of the poor whites was to serve as a ceiling on the aspirations of the blacks. Racial hatred was the unofficial policy of the region. It was assumed that these poor whites would not allow significant numbers of blacks to surpass them economically or socially.
Katznelson describes a series of laws and policy decisions during the New Deal period in detailing how racial bias was built into them. We will briefly discuss the Social Security Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and the GI Bill to illustrate the basis for his claim of "affirmative action for whites."
The Social Security Act was passed in 1935. From Wikipedia:
The southern politicians were in favor of this legislation. They badly needed an influx of federal money to support their states, but they also wanted to control how the money was spent and who would receive the funds.
The strategy the southerners adopted and used throughout this period was to exclude from the provisions of the law work descriptions that were predominantly populated by blacks, and to insist that social welfare programs be administered at the state and local levels rather having national standards imposed.
They succeeded in having agricultural and domestic workers excluded from coverage under Social Security legislation.
The social support aspects of the Social Security legislation, aid to dependent children (ADC), support for the elderly, and unemployment compensation, were given over to state administration.
In program after program, and state after state, blacks were discriminated against as whites received preferential treatment in the South.
Note how the intention to discriminate against blacks also caused harm to many poor whites as well.
The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938. From Wikipedia:
This was a major piece of legislation which revolutionized the interaction between workers and employers. The enactment of a national minimum wage provided a floor on the compensation that employers must provide. The southern politicians again insisted that agricultural workers and domestics be excluded from the reach of this law before they would allow it to pass. Once again the majority of blacks were excluded, along with many others.
The G.I. Bill was passed in 1944. From Wikipedia:
This act excluded no veteran who had served. There was no overt racial bias indicated. However, the southern politicians again insisted that the administration of the act be performed locally rather than nationally. This would be deemed one of the biggest and most successful federal programs of all time, but most black veterans would be unable to take advantage of it.
If a black man wished to go to a college or a vocational school, he most likely lived in a state with segregated schools where only a few all-black schools existed. They were of poorer quality than the all-white schools and were in no position to accommodate a large number of new applicants. Outside the South most universities had racial quotas limiting the number of blacks. Some did manage to take advantage of the opportunity, but most were unable.
If a black man wished to take advantage of low interest rate, zero down payment home loans being offered, he had to convince a white banker somewhere to find him loan-worthy. Banks were not making mortgage loans to blacks before the war; why should they change policy after the war? With northern and western cities being even more highly segregated in housing than the South, there was no place to go anyways.
This imbedded discrimination severely limited access by blacks to the many provisions of the G.I. Bill and prompted Katznelson to conclude:
Katznelson believes an effective—and legally defensible—affirmative action effort should be directed at correcting specific harm to specific individuals or their descendents. The differences in treatment accorded blacks under the programs described above form a basis for justifying some form of compensation. If it is too cumbersome to track individuals and their claims for compensation, the next best approach is to initiate a broad assault on inequality and poverty for those affected by discrimination.
Katznelson focuses almost exclusively on the harm done to blacks. However, the tools of discrimination were quite blunt and also harmed large numbers of poor whites. Many Latinos would have also been subject to the same forms of discrimination as blacks. It would seem that the best approach to redressing wrongs through affirmative action is an effort to reduce poverty and inequality irrespective of race. That approach would capture the greatest number of those who had a discrimination-based claim, and do some good in general.
Is such a thought ridiculous? Perhaps not. Katxnelson refers to the G.I. Bill as a social revolution.
"By 1950, the federal government had spent more on schooling for veterans than on expenditures for the Marshall Plan...."
"By 1948, 15 percent of the federal budget was devoted to the GI Bill...."
Today, 15 percent of the federal budget would amount to about $570 billion per year. That is a scale big enough to accomplish great changes within our society. If we could have a social revolution while emerging from the Great Depression and World War II, why can’t we do it again—now?