Saturday, December 23, 2006

Book Review--Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America

I'm hardly the first person to review Ira Katznelson's superb When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twenieth-Century America. It was the first book on my vacation reading list and I am glad of it.

Katznelson's thesis is basic: The New Deal and the GI Bill were vast affirmative action programs for white people. He complies a tremendous amount of evidence to show the truth of these statements. He does not criticize Franklin D. Roosevelt or the New Deal per se. In fact, some African-Americans did receive real benefits from these programs. But the combination of a lack of interest in racial equality by Roosevelt with the power of Southern politicians made these programs deeply racist at their core. Southern politicians insisted that New Deal programs be administered at the local level. This kept control over the money in the hands of white southerners and put African-Americans at a tremendous disadvantage for relief. Not only did this reinforce inequality but it expanded it significantly, leading to Lyndon Johnson wondering why inequality between whites and blacks had increased so much in the prosperous postwar period. There was a clear answer, but it was hard for Johnson to admit it, particularly since he played a key role in setting up these programs as a senator from Texas.

The GI Bill was more of the same. Facing a more conservative nation than in the early 1930s, Roosevelt and then Truman had to capitulate to southerners on issues of local control in order to get these programs passed. Most money for colleges went to already advantaged white institutions, while struggling black colleges continue to suffer. Home loans went almost exclusively to whites in the South, as local administrators refused to lend to blacks. In short, powerful Southern politicians such as John Rankin, Theodore Bilbo, Bennett Clark, and Howard Smith wanted federal money without federal control. Because of their power within the Democratic Party and within the halls of Congress, they managed to accomplish this, cracking down on unions and, more importantly, keeping the federal government from ensuring that blacks would have an even shot for money. While the South wanted federal money, they did not want it at the cost of undermining segregation. And they won.

These inequalities led Lyndon Johnson to introduce affirmative action programs to help make up this difference. Unwilling to accept ideas of white privilege and especially that beloved programs like Social Security and the GI Bill had helped white people at a far greater rate than blacks, American whites rose up in revolt, undermining the potential for affirmative action to cause change. Katznelson approves of the moderate and strict application of affirmative action promoted by Lewis Powell in his opinion on the Bakke case, and suggests that one generation of true affirmative action policies would both go a long way to undermine inequalities in today's America and would make the need for further affirmative action unlikely. I have trouble agreeing with him here; I think the differences between whites and blacks are too great for 20 years of government action to erase, particularly because resistance to this by many, and especially still powerful Southern, whites would make any meaningful change difficult at best. Moreover, I have trouble believing that such a program would make future affirmative action unnecessary. Continued and inherent racism within the United States will likely make government involvement in setting an equal playing field necessary as long as the nation exists.

Overall, Katznelson's book is one of the best I have read this year. I would have liked to see him look at Hispanics and Native Americans. Did they too face discrimination from the federal government? Did western politicians ally with southern politicians to benefit white people in both regions? He doesn't discuss this at all. Other than that, I have no real criticism of the book. He has an excellent command of the literature, employs more than enough statistics to back up his points, and writes incredibly well. I only hope that this book becomes standard reading for progressives as we work to shape debates over race, affirmative action and public policy.