Affirmative Action Was White: 7 pages Review

Affirmative Action Was White: Review

It is not unusual in the least for individuals in the U.S. today to think of affirmative action and other “equalizing” programs as color blind. In part due o the fact that the “de jure” representation of such plans, programs and legislations is linguistically color blind and written as such. Yet, the text When Affirmative Action was White clearly demonstrates that the kind of discrimination that was supportive of segregation, and “separate but equal” facilities was a huge part of the progressive era and post-WWI and II legal developments. Though programs such as the Social Security Act, establishing in short a public pension for individuals, the various Welfare programs to support those unable to work or displaced by war and of course the infamous GI-Bill which offered preferential funding for housing and education for returning soldiers were deliberately written to maintain the strength of the segregated United States. The manner in which this was done, is the main theme of the work and the point is very well made by the author. The deliberate nature in which these programs excluded blacks was subtle, as the author point out by expressing colorblind language and then restricting services by allowing state and local governments to disperse funding, allowing private industry to dominate housing loan programs and finally by excluding the kinds of work that the majority of blacks performed from the programs.


The author clearly makes convincing arguments and draws reasonable and logical conclusions from the historiographic evidence. The author opens the book with inferences into the nature and difficulty faced by President Johnson and other presidents before and after him, the fact that laws could be passed and regulations developed that would bee seemingly beneficial, but would logically support segregation through more subtler de facto standards and that those in power who chose solutions of inclusion, rather than exclusion had a difficult task, beginning with trying to make the legislation they sponsored and passed (or in the case of the president, did not veto) look as if it was going to address and sponsor inclusion, even when it did not, as a result of sentiment, tradition and regional standards of fear as well as logical arguments for disseminating limited resources the best way they could, i.e. To whites. The work points out through inference that those in power, despite their personal sentiments were relatively powerless against the sentiment of the nation and of the black southern majority in congress, seated through many of the years of progressive development for social services that were never seen before in a strictly capitalist society, where those who have spent a good portion of their energy making sure that what they had would not be spread about uniformly among those who had not.

The work fits in to the general treatment, offered in the text, American Government: Power and Purpose, especially with regard to the limited way in which laws and programs were applied to better meet the needs of the majority, rather than those of the minority. The best possible inference I can make as to how such sentiments work together can be seen in the lengthy discussion of Plessy v Ferguson where the segregation standards were upheld by the Supreme Court who deemed that the Louisiana law segregating blacks from whites on public transportation were not in violation of the constitution. In other words, separate but equal was legal and enforcing it was constitutional. (Lowi, Ginsberg & Shepsle 147-148) the text then goes on to discuss the rend of increased racial discrimination following WWII, making many of the same or similar points that are made by Katrznelson in his text. The pages discussing the period in American Government are focusing on the antithesis of Katrznelson’s work, stressing the nominal strides made in legislation and legal precedence that challenged the old guard mentality of exclusionary programs. The Plessy v. Ferguson discussion, on the other hand could serve as a universal analogy of the surface of the information Katrznelson intones. Those services left for African-Americans, the last train car on the line, furthest from the facilities, which were blocked by those enjoyed by whites, are those that are indicative of the standards of local services offered blacks during a heavy period of segregation. Even where segregation did not exist prior to this in any legal sense, but was supported by tradition, social and moral standards new segregation began to occur. In the Lowi, Ginsberg & Shepsle discussion of Plessy v Ferguson is a standard, noted by the supreme court justice who wrote the majority opinion briefing on the case that is more representative than almost anything else in the text on the point that Katrznelson is trying to make, ” the object of the [Fourteenth] Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law,…it could not have intended to abolish distinctions based on color, butt to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.” (147) in this passage the authors of the supreme court ruling uphold the fact that there is an obvious distinction between social and political equality and that whomever holds the majority voice is likely to set the terms of social “equality” despite any attempt to stress “absolute equality” i.e. equality in everything. In other words it is perfectly acceptable, in a legal sense to contradict equality in a social sense, to make “both” parties happy, despite the fact that no one likely asked the minority if such segregation was preferable to integration. Services could be inadequate or lacking as long as one or the other party was happy and fundamentally this meant whites were happy and blacks were simply not accounted for in opinion.

A message that Katrznelson is particularly effective at expressing, as apposed to the passages in Lowi, Ginsberg & Shepsle on discrimination after WWII is how extreme the social enforcement situation was in comparison to the nominal strides that blacks had made as disproportionate representatives in combat oversees. The Alabama voting rights march that Katrznelson discusses in his text where hundreds of blacks were beaten and treated with desperate oppression by local (Alabama) white officials makes the point clearly. The leader of the black march, John Lewis, a black POW from WWII says this, “I had fought in WWII, and I once was captured by the German army, and I want to tell you the Germans never were as inhuman as the state troopers of Alabama.” (3) the message is thematic of the reality of white fear post-WWII when many whites observed the standard shift that was associated with black men returning from war, where they had experienced less discrimination from foreigners than they did from their own countrymen, even though they were disproportionately represented in active combat service and where fighting a for a cause well loved by the U.S., the stopping of progress of an oppressive government over the rights of others. It takes little for any individual, no matter his education to see the irony in this sentiment, and ship workers and other blacks, women and men who remained in the U.S. during the war and experienced looser (though certainly not equal or fair) standards with regard to employment during wartime need also felt this backlash of restrictions as a fundamental contradiction. This is not covered completely by Katrznelson, but is only inferred. What is covered is the fact that legislation designed to assist in demonstrating social security among workers and to benefit returning soldiers and their families, such as education and housing funding but most extremely out of work and low wage earners were specifically designed and enforced in such a way as to exclude blacks. For instance many black wage earners were a part of the domestic and farm workers groups, groups that were specifically excluded from social security and old age pensions. (26-38) he most abject of America’s rural people…were the African-Americans who farmed in the South” (38) Yet, these were the very group of people who were openly excluded from federal and local programs and services that might have assisted them in at least maintaining a household once they were no longer viable workers. As Katrznelson points out more than 50% of black people in the south made their living in domestic or farm services. (27) the argument being that it would be too hard to administer the programs to these groups, even though they were probably those in most need of such services and in reality this was a hollow excuse. (44)

Katrznelson on the other hand does touch on many point expressed by Canon, Colman & Mayer, as they lay out documents that gave fundamental insight into the debates and challenges that are inherent of the race question in the U.S. In both a social and political sense. One message that is profound, and mirrored in the Alabama voters rights protect example, above it the closing comments of MLK Jr. In the speech that Canon, Colman & Mayer reprint; “You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its angry dogs sinking their teeth into six unarmed, non-violent Negroes, I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhuman treatment of Negroes her in the City Jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham Police Department.” (140) the message her is clear and runs parallel to Katrznelson’s as he makes every attempt to express the fact that situations like this were not only common they were indicative and parallel to the ideology that kept the laws “equal” and reality far from it. If the official face, i.e. The public representation of the staunch and fair policemen was to be accepted as the rule rather than the exception then it was perfectly acceptable for them to act outside that accord when they were behind closed doors. In other words if the constitution begins to challenge legal segregation then lawmakers can find cause to support real discrimination through exclusionary service provision.

Katrznelson points out the shift in constitutional law, just as Lowi, Ginsberg & Shepsle overemphasize it in their post WWII discussion where challenges to old guard standards begin to shift affirmative action from white needs to more egalitarian standards but also makes clear that the separation between reality and law was enforced in subtler ways for decades, and to some degree still is.


The development over time, of a set of egalitarian standards that Katrznelson points out is fundamental but required countless legal and social challenges to develop, many of them bloody and not demonstrative of “real” change that set about to make social service provision and other issues at least limitedly more egalitarian. Katrznelson does not necessarily offer a debate or discussion regarding affirmative action challenges, such as those which have occurred over the last 20 years to reverse the affirmative action laws that allow race to be considered as an aspect of what people think of as affirmative action today, such as college admissions and the like. This discussion would probably be well served and might add to an overall cyclical work. The point might be made that despite legal progress, and with a lack of knowledge associated with the social and legal history that he expresses in his work people today are trying to reverse strides made in the past.

Works Cited

Canon, David, Coleman, John & Mayer, Kenneth. The Enduring Debate: Classic and Contemporary Readings in American Politics, Fifth Edition. New York: Norton, 2008.

Katrznelson, Ira. When Affirmative Action Was White, New York: Norton, 2005.

Lowi, Theodore J., Ginsberg, Benjamin, Shepsle, Kenneth a. American Government: Power and Purpose, Tenth Edition. New York: Norton, 2008.

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