Book of the Month: When Affirmative Action Was White

We read this book for my book club and I knew it had to be book of the month. The title tells you a lot about what the book is about. The author, an actual academic, traces history by detailing how economic and social policies in America’s history excluded black folks and were racist. This is truly the perfect book for the people who always complain about affirmative action. But it also is ideal for Africans and others who genuinely thing African Americans are merely lazy or complain way too much.

Instead of viewing affirmative action as developing after the civil rights movement, this book goes back in history to the New Deal policies of the 1930s and 1940s. Also, ask most folks and they will tell you affirmative action was designed with a bias for minorities. However, history is truly missing from public debates about affirmative action, because people often start the conversation with the 1960s, when beneficiaries shifted from white to black. This book details how social security programs like the New Deal, GI Bill, the Fair Deal created powerful programs for whites, even if they were not explicitly called affirmative action at the time.  History will also show you that affirmative action was in fact designed for the majority, with and (by?) racist Southern Democrats who were in support of staunch racial hierarchy. Before the civil rights movement at all, policies were created to enable the prosperity of whites and deliberately leaving out blacks. For instance, while the Fair Labor Standards Act was great for factory workers, it was practically useless for maids and agricultural workers, the fields that were dominated by blacks, and this was because of the Southern Democrats. Reading this book makes you feel like going back some decades just to punch those racist, annoying, moronic Southern Democrats.

What this book does well is making a case for how and why we need to close racial inequality; rather than ambiguities like "reparations", which are messy, and quite frankly not feasible, isn't it better to enact policies that benefit minorities and *attempt* close the gap that racism and slavery and discrimination have created? Let's face it: although the Civil Rights Acts in theory shut down and forbade discrimination, it didn't address the centuries of discrimination black people had gone through. So President Lyndon Johnson initiated a new government policy, affirmative action, designed to repair some of the lasting damage that years of racism, slavery, and brutal discrimination inflicted upon blacks. And there was and (there still is) damage. While white folks or perhaps some others might find some of the contents of this book shocking, I didn't. I knew for instance, that for the longest time, blacks were excluded from receiving mortgage loans. This meant that while whites were able to build equity through owning homes and thereby multiplying their net worths, blacks were stuck. Consequently,

"at the end of the twentieth century, as a major study reported, 'the net worth of the typical white family is $81,000 compared to $8,000 for black families...only 10 cents for every dollar of wealth held by white families."

Black families have still not caught up. And with what was lost, you can see how it is easy for a white person to go to college and a black person wouldn't be able to. You can understand where privilege comes in. Privilege is many, many things, that one blog post can't cover, but one of them is never having to worry about the color of your skin being a hinderance to your progress. Privilege is having a trust fund for your education created by your father's father's father, whereas another person's father's father was restricted in the kinds of schools he could go; or the kinds of water fountains he could use. There are also *still* tons of policies that exist in favor of white people, but work against black people. Even post Civil Rights Acts, truth is (and this is especially for all the people with the rallying cry against affirmative action because it favors black people yen yen yen) white women as group are the single greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action.

One thing that stands out is how, although the book is more than a decade old, it actually feels fresh, like it was written this year. My favorite part of this book is how it is able to bridge the divide between policy and academia; it fits very well into both worlds. Of course as a true academic, he concludes with policy recommendations for American policymakers in their dealings with the legacies of these policies by reexamining the original vision of  Lyndon Johnson and affirmative action itself.

I put some excerpts in form of pictures across this post to truly give you a better picture. I will warn that the book is a little bit dense, but that's to be expected in a book by an academic. I implore you to read it though, because I couldn't possibly adequately explain the importance of this book in this era, and indeed for posterity as we have conversations surrounding race.



No comments