Day 14 of White History Month: When Affirmative Action Was White (and How It Subsequently Hurt Americans of Color)
Discussions of racial inequality commonly dwell on only one side of the color line. We talk about black poverty, black unemployment, black crime, and public policies for blacks. We rarely, however, talk about the gains whites receive from the troubles experienced by blacks. - Michael K. Brown et. al., Whitewashing Race
Affirmative action reappears as a contentious issue and returns to the national spotlight just about every other year in the United States. Last year, Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas due to her rejection from University of Texas - Austin (despite the fact that her grades and SAT scores did not meet UT-Austin standards). This is an accurate reflection of white entitlement to institutions: even they are not qualified, if they do not get what they want, an opportunity was stolen from them.
Many white people believe that a colorblind approach should be taken, believing us to live in a post-racial society. Not only is that untrue, but many white people do not mention how white wealth was achieved. White people are said to have worked hard, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and fairly earned their success.
In turn, people of color, particularly Black and Latin@ Americans, are often blamed for their lack of wealth and success. It is attributed to personal moral failings, a culture of poverty, low IQ (The Bell Curve), and more. The many institutional and structural factors that have advantaged and continue to advantage white Americans (leading to wealth disaccumulation for Black Americans and other Americans of color) are ignored. Legislation that is praised for creating and expanding the American middle class really only or primarily helped the white middle class. The Homestead Acts, the GI Bill, and Social Security are responsible for white wealth, but most of these acts hardly helped Americans of color, if at all.
In Whitewashing Race, the authors argue that if affirmative action is defined as “race and gender preferences codified into law and enforced through public policy and social customs” that white people - particularly white men - have long benefited from affirmative action. Instituting colorblind policies today cannot reverse past policies in favor of white people, nor can it erase continuing discrimination.
Today, race is often coded and racism is often aversive. So while jobs may no longer specify “whites only”, they discriminate against those who have stereotypically Black names. While welfare is colorblind in theory, language barriers are put up to prevent Latin@ applicants from receiving benefits. While poll taxes are now illegal, voter ID laws are put in place that disproportionately affect Black, Latin@, and Native Americans.
Particularly with regards to wealth and institutional access, early exclusion is detrimental. Throughout the history of the United States, access to institutions has been controlled by white Americans. The legal system, the labor market, education (including academia), medicine, mass media, the military, police, and NGOs have always been controlled by white Americans.
Wealth is a long-term investment than cannot be fixed overnight. Even when income gaps shrink, wealth gaps persist. Americans of color have made tremendous gains over the past century, but those gains do not erase the damage that is already done. Wealth, unlike income, is intergenerational and often inherited. Social class is fairly static, so those who start off in a lower class position are unlikely to rise to a higher one (and the reverse is also true).
White wealth is associated with economic losses and exploitation of people of color. When white Americans enslaved Black Americans, white Americans received free labor. When white Americans stole land from Native Americans, it was distributed to even poor whites through Homestead Acts. Even poor whites benefited through the white privilege expanded to include them. When wealthy white employers could exploit Chinese, Mexican, and Black Americans for low wages, this meant that white workers had unfair wage advantage. When white Americans excluded Americans of color from unions, this meant that white Americans had access to better jobs with better pay. White gains are generally accompanied by a corresponding exploitation and loss of Americans of color.
White Americans are quick to ignore that white Americans not only have experienced “affirmative action”, but they already control access to institutions.
Details on specific policies below the cut
Racist Representation - Poll Taxes and other restrictions
Literacy tests were introduced in Southern states shortly after Reconstruction. These tests were used to prevent Black and Mexican Americans from voting. Poor white Americans were given the advantage of relying upon the grandfather clause - if their ancestors had the right to vote before the Civil War, they could still vote, despite the fact they otherwise would have been excluded.
Though Black Americans were largely unable to vote until the 1960s, they still counted in the population of Southern states. Due to this, white Southern Democrat representatives were voted to represent most of the South, even though they were blatantly racist and in favor of legislation that harmed Black Americans. White Americans were able to use the presence of Black Americans for their own gains and the preservation of white supremacist policies. In fact, the three-fifths compromise counted Black Americans as 3/5ths of a person solely for the benefit of white Southerners.
The GI Bill
White Americans had greater access to college and subsequently had higher wages, access to home-buying, and more upon returning from the first World War. These advantages did not extend to Black Americans, however.
The World War Committee in the House of Representative was headed by an openly racist, anti-Semitic congressman, John Rankin of Mississippi. The GI Bill, unsurprisingly, was left to be enforced by the states rather than federally enforced. This meant that institutional racism would very much affect Black Americans who lived in the South, due to Jim Crow laws. GI Bill benefits were distributed by nearly all-white administrators.
White Americans outside of the upper classes had access to college after the first World War, thanks to the GI Bill. Their opportunities were expanded greatly through a college education. Though the GI Bill technically gave Black Americans more opportunities for education, Black Southerners suffered greatly due to a lack of university access. Jim Crow laws meant that Black Southerners had to attend Black institutions. There was a shortage of institutions open to Black students, and those institutions were not funded as well as white institutions. In the North, many institutions were reluctant to accept Black students even when they were qualified. Additionally, many top universities such as Harvard and Princeton put quotas on Jewish students (who were often generally viewed racially different from white gentiles) in order to better the chances of Protestant white Americans, regardless of qualifications. Universities asked for race, religion, and parents’ birthplace on college applications.
When Black Americans did attend college, they hardly benefitted. A large study showed that Black Americans did not have improved life chances or opportunities upon receiving a college education, but white Americans did. The GI Bill improved life outcomes for white Americans and increased the gap between white and Black Americans.
Labor Market Discrimination
Just as in the case of attending college, many white people think that affirmative action means that Americans of color are hired for jobs they are unqualified for. These people likely ignore the fact that up until the 1970’s, many employers advertised that positions were for “whites only”. Even today, resumes sent out in response to help-wanted ads in one large study show that applicants with stereotypically Black names are 50 percent less likely to receive an interview than white Americans.
Additionally, white people benefit from white privilege even when they are felons. White men with a felony drug conviction are more likely to be hired than Black men with no criminal record. Additionally, Western (2006) found that wages dropped on average 10 percent for Black men released from prison, but they rose slightly for white men upon release.
White Americans often complain about Black women as “welfare queens” and portray Black, Latin@, and Native Americans as living off of government benefits. In reality, this is not paying attention to disproportionate lack of wealth (which is intergenerational).
Black Americans were of course disproportionately more poor after slavery and reconstruction. Although Black Americans made up a large portion of the poor (and thus a large portion of those on welfare nationwide), their access to ADC benefits were restricted by many Southern states. “Suitable home” requirements were put in place, affecting Black women more than other groups. White Americans had access to a disproportionate amount of funds in relation to their levels of poverty.
Social security - though colorblind in name - excluded many Black workers, particularly Black women, through its exclusion of domestic and agricultural workers. While it also excluded 40% of white workers, it excluded 65% of Black Americans and 70-80% of Black Southerners. Black women were 75% of domestic workers in the south. This was not what FDR’s commission on social security recommended, nor was it his goal. The legislation was technically blind to race, but it was influenced heavily by the Southern Democrats. Only when Southern Democrats had less of a hold on the Democratic party and on national politics in general did this change.