Affirmative Action for Whites & the Generational Handoff

I spent the first 35 years of my life interested in social sciences and economics. I wanted to know how things worked, really worked, and I believed that economic forces drove us. But after writing hundreds of business and economics stories and investing on my own, I began to believe that mapping economic and rational forces, while important, leave gaps. Big gaps. That’s especially true when we’re trying to understand how something that is not “real,” like race, has “real” effects on our world.

So I dug into history, or cultural history, to try to grasp the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves and to understand how those stories are translated into laws and economic relationships and public policies.

My journey eventually took me way back – to the founding of the country. But we don’t have to travel so far to begin to see what I’m talking about. “But wait,” you might say, “just because others fall into the trap of treating race as real, why should we? We don’t have to fall into the same trap!” This is the point that my friend was making when he suggested that we look at class and power. I’m with my friend who doesn’t want to make “race” stronger by treating it as if it is real.

If we don’t acknowledge the power that race has in society, we can fall into another trap – failing to see how rules we’ve already created in society penalize people of some races and give a leg up to people of other races (mainly whites). Here are some examples of race, class and power from recent American history – laws that provided the foundation for our parents’ generation. If we used only class and power to think about these, I believe that we would be missing a large part of the lesson. These programs provided the bedrock of our parent’s and our lives.

  • Minimum Wage Laws. When FDR was trying to enact the minimum wage laws, FDR couldn’t get the votes he needed without the Democrats in the South. The Deep South Democrats demanded that the law exclude the two occupations that most blacks worked in at the time – agriculture labor and domestic service. (Of course, this also hurt whites working in those professions. However, these two occupations weren’t the overwhelming occupations of whites NOR did those occupations define their standard of living and opportunity as it did for blacks.)

  • Social Security. Southerners cut farm laborers and domestic service workers out of the Social Security Act.
  • The G.I. Bill. The G.I. Bill spent $95 billion on increasing opportunity for soldiers returning from WWII. It’s credited with unleashing post-war prosperity by helping with college loans, home loans and job training. But again, Southern legislators stepped in. They wrote the law so that local officials distributed the money, and that meant they distributed the money in a way that reinforced Jim Crow.

The result: by October 1946, the Mississippi employment service had placed 6,500 former soldiers into non-farm jobs, 86% of the skilled and semiskilled jobs went to whites. 92% of the unskilled jobs went to blacks. Black colleges didn’t have room for all the black servicemen who wanted to return to school. Meanwhile, the University of Pennsylvania (considered one of the most progressive of the Ivy League colleges) enrolled only 46 blacks in its student body of 9,000.

The list of examples goes on to include the home mortgage system, the federal highway system and our post-war residential sprawl. (Scholars have been discovering similarly wretched examples for years. The work is compactly analyzed by Columbia University professor Ira Katznelson in When Affirmative Action Was White. Katznelson nicely places this in the broader political context to show how the white middle class was created out of New Deal and post WWII policies that specifically excluded blacks.)

The examples also illustrate how race has been used to exert power. In most of these examples above, power used race to maintain a cheap southern agricultural labor force and an economically subservient population. So class and power might be the driving force. But “race” – that thing that doesn’t really exist – was the form the expression took.

These programs also show the generational implications of the way we have created an economic system around race. One generation helps set the stage for the next. The post-war policies set the table for our parents, and they all struggled to give their children a better life.

Understanding the impact of these programs show us that we won’t undo the damage quickly. We need to take a hard look at our policies and ourselves as we set the table for the next generation.

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