Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005)



Ira Katznelson’s book When Affirmative Action Was White examines how New Deal and Fair Deal policy decisions systematically excluded African Americans, thus widening the gap between blacks and whites and prompted Lyndon Johnson to begin legislation that has become the modern-day Affirmative Action.  Katznelson argues that in order to fully understand late twentieth and early twenty-first century Affirmative Action policies and to create stronger arguments for Affirmative Action, one must begin with policies from the Great Depression, World War II and postwar America that prevented blacks from reaping the benefits of these social initiatives and effectively creating Affirmative Action for whites.  Katznelson writes this book at a time when Affirmative Action is under attack by a well organized and popular opposition, and believes that proponents will benefit from a discussion that begins with the New Deal policies of the 1930s, as opposed to Johnson’s civil rights initiatives of the 1960s. 

Katznelson begins his book by examining Lyndon Johnson’s commencement address to Howard University on June 4, 1965.  While Johnson recognized the widening gap between blacks and whites, he argues that their current condition was due to centuries of oppression and the breakdown of the “Negro family structure.”  Though Katznelson is not dismissive of Johnson’s claims, he believes them to be insufficient and that the president must look at the policies of his own party to explain condition of blacks in the United States.  He argues that Johnson’s speech failed to acknowledge how many New Deal and Fair Deal policies were “crafted and administered in a deeply discriminatory manner”(17).  Katznelson believes that these policies were the brainchild of the Democratic Party’s southern wing, members who held unyielding influence in many of these committees and worked exclusively to buttress Jim Crow.

            The most influential legislation in American history, Katznelson argues, was the most detrimental to African Americans.  Southern Democrats fought for and won local control of legislation, thus leaving distribution of relief in the hands of hostile local officials who assured that blacks were not the beneficiaries of New Deal legislation.  The social welfare programs, most especially Social Security, were shaped to advance “racist contours”.  Jobs dominated by blacks, including domestic servants and farmers, were excluded from receiving social security benefits and could not be protected by the increase of pro-union legislation. In the 1940s traditionally pro-union Democrats jumped rank and joined Republicans in pushing for anti-union legislation, culminating with the Taft-Hartley Act.  Again, the seemingly by-partisan legislation advocated by southern Democrats stemmed from their desire to maintain racial order in the name of protecting the “Southern way of life”.  The mobilization of blacks in unions, they believed, might fuel civil rights activism.

            Katznelson’s chapter on World War II and military segregation highlighted the ideological paradox of a nation defending freedom abroad while legally sanctioning oppression at home.  Though the military provided some opportunities for blacks, such as educational and vocational training that would be otherwise unavailable to them as civilians, separate but equal policies prevented them from moving through the ranks, often losing promotions to less qualified whites.  The G.I. Bill, for Katznelson, was the culmination of the discriminatory policies.  Even a bill rife with language of egalitarianism was “written under southern auspices…was deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow” (114).  Local control dictated which veterans received money, and often black veterans were the odd man out.  Those who did receive funds for education had to attend predominantly black colleges whose facilities were less than desirable due to Plessy v. Ferguson’s espousal of separate but equal facilities.  As the main villain in Katznelson’s narrative, the influence of southern Democrats rendered the G.I. Bill useless to African Americans. 

            Katznelson brings a deeper historical context to the history of Affirmative Action in the United States and provides its advocates with more evidence to support its necessity.  However there were omissions that would have strengthened his argument of governmental compliance in discriminatory legislation against blacks. The situation of blacks in the North is notoriously absent from Katznelson’s narrative, especially with white flight to the suburbs increasing in postwar America.  Redlining, which he nominally mentions, prevents blacks from obtaining home loans, and disinvestment by the government in areas such as New York, Detroit, and Newark in order to support the growth of suburbs would have helped in establishing government compliance in widening the gaps between blacks and whites.