‘When Affirmative Action Was White’: Uncivil Rights

‘When Affirmative Action Was White’: Uncivil Rights

 
By NICK KOTZ
Published: August 28, 2005
After years of battling racial discrimination and braving state-sanctioned violence — with hundreds of Southern black churches set fire to and scores of citizens beaten or murdered for daring to challenge American apartheid — the civil rights movement achieved a climactic victory when President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, 1965. It was the outcome of ”a shining moment in the conscience of man,” declared the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In less than two years, the nation did more to advance equal rights for minorities than at any time since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Ray Bartkus
WHEN AFFIRMATIVE ACTION WAS WHITE
An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America.
By Ira Katznelson.
238 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $25.95.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act struck down the South’s segregation laws, outlawed employment discrimination and forbade discrimination in federal programs. For black Americans living in the South, the voting rights law finally secured the right to the ballot. And President Johnson initiated a sweeping new government policy called affirmative action. Its purpose was to overcome at least some of the accumulated human damage caused by 350 years of slavery and Jim Crow, and to ensure further progress toward equality.

Benefiting from that ”shining moment” in the 1960’s, a black middle class has prospered and grown rapidly. Yet millions of African-Americans remain mired in poverty in a nation bitterly divided over whether special help to minorities should continue. Affirmative action programs have long been under siege, vigorously attacked in Congress and the federal courts and criticized for ”discriminating” against the white majority. With conservatives dominating the federal government, civil rights groups and other liberal organizations have waged a mostly defensive battle to protect the gains of the 1960’s. Fresh ideas and effective leadership to advance the American ideals of equality and social justice have been in short supply.

Ira Katznelson, the Ruggles professor of political science and history at Columbia University, enters this fray with a provocative new book, ”When Affirmative Action Was White,” which seeks to provide a broader historical justification for continuing affirmative action programs. Katznelson’s principal focus is on the monumental social programs of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal in the 1930’s and 1940’s. He contends that those programs not only discriminated against blacks, but actually contributed to widening the gap between white and black Americans — judged in terms of educational achievement, quality of jobs and housing, and attainment of higher income. Arguing for the necessity of affirmative action today, Katznelson contends that policy makers and the judiciary previously failed to consider just how unfairly blacks had been treated by the federal government in the 30 years before the civil rights revolution of the 1960’s.

This history has been told before, but Katznelson offers a penetrating new analysis, supported by vivid examples and statistics. He examines closely how the federal government discriminated against black citizens as it created and administered the sweeping social programs that provided the vital framework for a vibrant and secure American middle class. Considered revolutionary at the time, the new legislation included the Social Security system, unemployment compensation, the minimum wage, protection of the right of workers to join labor unions and the G.I. Bill of Rights.

Even though blacks benefited to a degree from many of these programs, Katznelson shows how and why they received far less assistance than whites did. He documents the political process by which powerful Southern Congressional barons shaped the programs in discriminatory ways — as their price for supporting them. (A black newspaper editorial criticized Roosevelt for excluding from the minimum wage law the black women who worked long hours for $4.50 a week at the resort the president frequented in Warm Springs, Ga.)

At the time, most blacks in the labor force were employed in agriculture or as domestic household workers. Members of Congress from the Deep South demanded that those occupations be excluded from the minimum wage, Social Security, unemployment insurance and workmen’s compensation. When labor unions scored initial victories in organizing poor factory workers in the South after World War II, the Southern Congressional leaders spearheaded legislation to cripple those efforts. The Southerners’ principal objective, Katznelson contends, was to safeguard the racist economic and social order known as the Southern ”way of life.”

Katznelson reserves his harshest criticism for the unfair application of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, a series of programs that poured $95 billion into expanding opportunity for soldiers returning from World War II. Over all, the G.I. Bill was a dramatic success, helping 16 million veterans attend college, receive job training, start businesses and purchase their first homes. Half a century later, President Clinton praised the G.I. Bill as ”the best deal ever made by Uncle Sam,” and said it ”helped to unleash a prosperity never before known.”

But Katznelson demonstrates that African-American veterans received significantly less help from the G.I. Bill than their white counterparts. ”Written under Southern auspices,” he reports, ”the law was deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow.” He cites one 1940’s study that concluded it was ”as though the G.I. Bill had been earmarked ‘For White Veterans Only.’ ” Southern Congressional leaders made certain that the programs were directed not by Washington but by local white officials, businessmen, bankers and college administrators who would honor past practices. As a result, thousands of black veterans in the South — and the North as well — were denied housing and business loans, as well as admission to whites-only colleges and universities. They were also excluded from job-training programs for careers in promising new fields like radio and electrical work, commercial photography and mechanics. Instead, most African-Americans were channeled toward traditional, low-paying ”black jobs” and small black colleges, which were pitifully underfinanced and ill equipped to meet the needs of a surging enrollment of returning soldiers.

The statistics on disparate treatment are staggering. By October 1946, 6,500 former soldiers had been placed in nonfarm jobs by the employment service in Mississippi; 86 percent of the skilled and semiskilled jobs were filled by whites, 92 percent of the unskilled ones by blacks. In New York and northern New Jersey, ”fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill supported home purchases by nonwhites.” Discrimination continued as well in elite Northern colleges. The University of Pennsylvania, along with Columbia the least discriminatory of the Ivy League colleges, enrolled only 46 black students in its student body of 9,000 in 1946. The traditional black colleges did not have places for an estimated 70,000 black veterans in 1947. At the same time, white universities were doubling their enrollments and prospering with the infusion of public and private funds, and of students with their G.I. benefits.

Katznelson argues that the case for affirmative action today is made more effectively by citing concrete history rather than through general exhortations. Studying the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society and the civil rights movements of the 1960’s could not be more relevant at a time when the administration seems determined to weaken many of the federal programs that for decades have not just sustained the nation’s minorities but built its solid middle class. Whether or not Katznelson’s study directly influences the affirmative action debate, it serves an important purpose. With key parts of the Voting Rights Act set to expire in 2007 and other civil rights protections subject to change, we must understand a continuing reality: the insidious and recurrent racial bias in the history of American public life.

Nick Kotz, a journalist and historian, is the author of ”Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws That Changed America.”

Why Race Matters in the Government Shutdown

COLORLINES NEWS FOR ACTION

Why Race Matters in the Government Shutdown

 

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) arrives for a Republican Conference meeting at the U.S. Capitol September 30, 2013. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

by Imara Jones

Tuesday, October 1 2013

The shutdown of the federal government which began at midnight today is a body blow to our economy that could prove difficult to bear. Coming on the heels of the automatic budget cuts of sequestration, which are already forecast to cost 750,000 jobs this year, and three years of an anemic economic recovery, the furlough of almost a million federal workers is just not what the economy needs right now. The shutdown was touched off by a Senate vote yesterday to turn down a measure that would have kept the government operating for 10 weeks in exchange for a one year delay in Obamacare.

Given that the federal government contributes one out of seven dollars to annual economic output by making critical investments in key areas such as health, education, food security and housing, it will be hard to find an American who won’t be touched by this freeze in government activities, especially if it lasts for more than a few short days.

As the parts of the government affected by the shutdown disproportionately impact economic opportunity programs for the working poor, historically marginalized communities are likely to the feel the effects of a shutdown acutely as time goes on.

What’s particularly distressing about the shuttering of the government is that it comes at a time when unemployment remains in the double digits for blacks and Latinos. As the Center for American Progress points out, federal, state and local governments since 2008 have eliminated 750,000 public sector jobs. Given unionization and strong anti-discriminatory hiring practices, people of color are more likely to have jobs in the public sector. This is particularly true for African-Americans, and it’s why joblessness remains so stubborn in communities of color.

The truth is that people of color represent a larger proportion of the federal workforce than the workforce overall. According to the Washington Post, 35 percent of federal workers are non-White versus 30 percent of all workers.  This means that a shutdown will only add to the economic woes and employment worries in communities of color.

To be clear, not all of the more than four million federal workers will be told to stay home. Men and women in the armed forces make up close to half of all those on the federal payroll. Given special legislation to exempt them from the shutdown passed by Congress yesterday, they will be on the job and receive pay.

But over 800,000 of the remaining two million civilian workers will be barred from work. Those deemed “essential” to maintain the “safety of human life or protection of property” in critical positions will work but not receive pay. Either way, the bottom line is that two million Americans and the families that rely on them will not receive a paycheck during the period of the shutdown.

The key question though is “how much of this will really hurt?” The answer depends on how long it goes on.

If the federal government is up and running by the end of next week, the impact will be minimal. But should it last for more than 10 days or so, it will begin to bite.  Economic forecasts underscore the point.

As Bloomberg reports, Mark Zandi, former economic advisor to John McCain and chief economist at Moody’s, calculates that a shutdown of a few days would be negligible, but one of two weeks would cut economic growth for the last three months of this year by 10 percent. Any longer than that and the economy would be on its way back to recession.

Adding to the potential pain and uncertainty of it all is the sheer scale of government activities that will be curtailed, each touching on vital areas of economic life necessary for the country to function. With guidance from agency submissions to the White House, here’s a sampling of the way things could look if the shutdown persists into next week.

Health needs delayed: The 110 million Americans already in Medicare—the government health program for the elderly—and Medicaid—the federal and state partnership to provide health insurance to the working poor and their children—will continue to receive the services and treatment that they need. However new applications to these programs will be delayed until the government reopens.

Impaired ability to fight disease: The Centers for Disease Control will scale back the monitoring of the spread of infectious diseases and the National Institutes of Health will do the same for critical research into life-saving treatments until the lights come back on.

More people hungry:  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps, will continue to provide its $33 of weekly assistance to the 48 million Americans who currently receive it. However, the Women Infants and Children Program (WIC)—which covers seven million children and infants, and their mothers—will temporarily end. The program will restart once the government reopens.

Poor kids set back: Funds for the one million children in Head Start will technically expire today, but only a smattering of locations will be forced to immediately close their doors. However, more programs will run out of money and come under pressure the longer this goes on. The same is true for Title I education grants, which provide badly needed assistance to 20 million children in the nation’s poorest school districts. Also, review of new student loan and federal grant applications will be delayed.

Housing at risk:  The Federal Housing Administration, which underwrites four out of every 10 mortgages in the United States and is crucial for working families entering the housing market, will not process new home loans during an extended shutdown. Housing vouchers for the working poor and the homeless will also be at risk the longer this goes on.

More immigration delays:  Border patrols and enforcement will continue during the shutdown, but new visa and citizenship applications will be stalled until the government is back to work.

The essential point is that the partial closing of the government is potentially a huge setback for both the broader economy and economic justice at a crucial moment.

Though Congressional Republicans and their allied tea party organizations don’t see it that way.

Former Republican vice chairman and head of the American Conservative Union, Al Cardenas, told the Center for American Progress’ Thinkprogress blog this past weekend that he was “convinced” that there “would not be” any negative economic fallout from the shutdown. If the government is closed for a just a few days, he might very well be right.

But as I argued last week, the GOP and tea party outlook on a government shutdown is not about economic evidence, it’s about advancing an overall ideology. Until that changes, millions of Americans might very well have reason to worry.

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