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When Affirmative Action Was White by Ira Katznelson [Book Review]


When Affirmative Action Was White by Ira Katznelson tells the story of how the progressive programs of the 1930s and 1940s solidified and expanded the American middle class. The implementations of these programs were designed to especially benefit White citizens while excluding Black citizens whenever possible. Coupled with other economic injustices of the past, this unfair distribution of resources and opportunities contributed to the wealth gap that persists to this day. Yet, because the underlying political shenanigans are often unmentioned, it has allowed people in the present to oppose more recent affirmative action programs intended to rectify the situation.


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From reading books and watching documentaries about American history, I was aware that the New Deal marked a turning point in the history of the American economy. It was the first time that the federal government truly intervened to provide any large-scale meaningful assistance to its struggling citizens. America applauds itself and its leaders for implementing these programs that were incredibly progressive for the time.

But I also read a lot of books about Black history and over the last year have come across and read quite a few books that approach Black history from an economic perspective. It was through these titles that I learned the reality of how these New Deal programs really worked. In theory, the programs were progressive and should have transformed all of American society for the better but fell short because of political maneuvering. The decades that followed would see large swaths of White America be lifted out of poverty and become members of the middle class while relatively few black Americans shared in the bounty.

In response to the Great Depression, the government introduced various programs and policies aimed at jumpstarting the economy. There were programs to help people with housing which included mortgages insured by the government. This made them less risky for lenders and thus more affordable and attainable for prospective homeowners. Social security was created to provide financial assistance for the elderly and disabled as well as work programs, labor protection, assistance for farmers, etc.

On paper, these were great programs. But the blatant institutional racism and political structure of the time allowed the programs to be unfairly implemented. Agreements between politicians hoping to preserve the system of White supremacy in the South and passive politicians of the North made it possible for these programs to be created while all but ensuring that Black people would be excluded.

As Katznelson points out early in When Affirmative Action Was White, when we think of affirmative action in the present, it’s often concerning college admission, jobs, etc. But if you look at it in a broader context, affirmative action has existed for decades. The difference is that since the Civil Rights Movement, there’s been more conversation around these areas and Black people. But in the past, affirmative action and other progressive programs had been almost to the sole benefit of White people.

How people view and discuss affirmative action in the present is limited to programs and policies that, whether accurately or inaccurately, are viewed as being primarily utilized by and/or benefiting Black people. The reality is that these modern programs were created due to the unequal implementation of past programs. Katznelson breaks down the political machinations that led to the original unequal setup.

The South and thus Southern politicians wanted to ensure that Black people would remain in a position of being second-class citizens. These programs were intended to expand if not establish a solid American middle class. Thus they couldn’t have the programs be implemented in a way that would give Black people access to jobs, the ability to more easily purchase homes, etc. For the most part, it was acceptable for more White citizens to become a part of the middle class but there was no desire for an expanded Black middle class.

You can think of the compromise that resulted as being similar to that of the Compromise of 1877 which effectively ended Reconstruction. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration needed Southern politicians to sign off on the New Deal programs. In exchange for allowing these new policies to be signed into law, the Southern politicians wanted assurances that Black citizens, especially in the South, could be excluded from these programs.

The two sides came to an agreement where the new policies would be drafted and implemented in a manner that would allow for the exclusion of Black people without specifying that a particular racial or ethnic group be excluded. As a result of these progressive programs and the economic growth that was experienced after WWII, just a few decades later, there was a solid White middle class but no comparable Black middle class.

The politicians needed to avoid being found in violation of the Civil Rights Amendments or complaints of racism. It wasn’t a good look for a public federal program to be limited based on race. Thus they had to find a way around this, a means of excluding Black people from these programs without actually stating that Black people should be excluded from these programs.

In the case of programs like the federal minimum wage, social security, etc. they focused on employment. Or more accurately specific industries and types of employment. Segregation limited many Black workers in the South to domestic work and farming, the same types of work that had been done by their ancestors during slavery. Thus segregation also made it easy to implement policies that inexplicably excluded these particular industries from the new labor-related programs. Black workers could then be targeted without specifying in the law that Black people be excluded.

I understand this being intended as a workaround. But the question that I would ask is, did no one at that point question if these programs were intended to assist American workers, why were these particular industries being singled out versus any other? What was the reason given for specifying that a particular industry shouldn’t be subject to these new stipulations? I’ve read about this in a few books now and nobody has offered any anecdotes or examples of even an excuse being given as a pretext for the exclusion of industries that overwhelmingly employed Black people.

It shouldn’t have been enough to say, “we’re going to exclude farmworkers and domestic workers from these programs” and everybody just leaves it at that. If anyone truly cared, the very next question should have been why these particular industries versus construction, healthcare, or any other industry? Why those two particular industries and not any others? This clearly indicates not only the racist intent but the passivity that allowed these programs to be unfairly implemented. No politicians of that generation should be absolved from allowing these injustices to take place.

Sure the Southern politicians might have created the structure for such unjust policies to be easily put in place. But the Northern and Western politicians stood by passively and allowed these unjust limitations to be put in place. The South rightfully catches a lot of flack for its history of the race-based oppression of Black people. But similar systems of oppression which affected Black people and other marginalized groups were created or otherwise allowed to exist in other parts of the country. The efforts to keep them in place were generally more subtle but no less determined.

Katznelson goes on to explain how disparities in government spending on education, healthcare, public assistance, etc. developed between the South and North. The South in general was poorer than other regions of the country. But looking back through history there’s a saying that when America has a cold or the flu, Black America gets pneumonia. This means that when something bad happens to America whether economically, with regards to health, etc. the effects tend to be especially devastating for Black America.

Whatever the impact on White America, multiply that by whatever factor and that tends to be the impact on Black America. In this case, you have poverty in the South across racial groups and generally speaking White people in the South were poorer than White people in other parts of the country. Poverty exists within the White community but is even more acute within the Black community.

This goes back to the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion where in exchange for perceived racial superiority, poor racist White people settled for remaining at the economic bottom. Since then they have continued to be willing to spite themselves. They are willing to do without and endure hardships if it means that they can maintain their perceived racial superiority over Black people.

These politicians represent their constituents. They went to Washington and implemented these programs that limited relief for farm and domestic workers. This was done on the behalf of the people that voted them into power. It was a concerted effort to maintain white supremacy in the South by in part ensuring the continued subjugation of Black people and exploitation of Black workers.

During this period, Black people’s voting rights were severely limited to the point of pretty much nonexistence. Thus within the South, these problematic politicians were primarily being supported by and voted into power by White people. Those voters were co-signing the programs that were being implemented.

A large amount of the Black population was employed in the farm industry and Black women comprised the majority of domestic workers. As a result, the Black community was especially hard hit by the exclusion of these industries from New Deal programs. But some White people in the South were also farm workers and at least theoretically would have also been negatively impacted by these programs. They might miss out on the economic benefits but would have to take the hit if it meant Black people would also remain in an economic position below them.

With the New Deal, Black people were put between a rock and a hard place. Imagine you’re at the very bottom struggling and things are terrible. You’re then offered a little bit of something (scraps really) in exchange for publicly supporting this initiative with the expectation that you won’t ask for anything else in the future. Or you can receive nothing at all if you choose not to lend your support. Katznelson provides quotes and examples from a few different people of the time who took sides in the public debate.

One faction felt Black people should not be a party to the promotion of these programs because what we were being offered was an insult and not progress. While another faction felt that something was better than nothing so the deal should be accepted. It’s one thing if the offer is a starting position and negotiations would move forward from there but it seems that the offer was: take this, be happy with it, and let that be the end of the discussion. Do you continue to struggle and possibly starve by taking nothing while pushing for better in the future? Or do you take these scraps right now knowing that it might be difficult to get more in the future?

And this is where state’s rights come into play, as with many of these problems. It dates back to the time of federalists and anti-federalists, those who supported a strong centralized government versus those who preferred a weak loose central government with more power resting with local government. There has always been this thing of Southern states harping about states’ rights but then being very willing to accept federal funds. Using this set-up during the New Deal era, Southern politicians implemented a plan where their states would receive federal funds but then fall back on states’ rights to pick and choose how they’d like to implement the accompanying policies that governed the disbursement of those funds.

Katznelson makes a rather astute observation that Southern Democrats put in place the tendency of picking and choosing when federal programs would be implemented at the federal or state level. It’s a way of allowing states to play around with who should be included or excluded. Back then it was different as people, in general, seemed to argue against the government providing support for the poor or intervening in the markets and society in any way. But since then there’s been less resistance to these large packages from the federal government. That is as long as states get to decide how to allocate the funds.

After the Civil War, there were now amendments to define citizenship and protect civil and civic rights. There were laws on the books but it was still incredibly difficult for Black people in the South to register let alone actually vote. Various systems were working together at the local level which included not only political and legal procedures but also physical and economic intimidation. These barriers to voting and voting rights were not just intended to maintain civic control of the South but to use civic domination of the South to ensure the continuation of white supremacy.

A lot of attention is paid to the politics behind how these policies came about which makes clear the strategic importance of suppressing the Black vote in the South. An effort was and still is put into the continued disenfranchisement of Black people, particularly in the South. The reason is that America is a representative rather than a direct democracy. For the most part, citizens of America do not directly vote on laws or programs, especially at the federal level. The way that citizens voice their opinions is by voting for politicians we believe represent our views as president or members of Congress.

There can only be one president at a time and each state receives two seats in the Senate. But the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives is based on population, thus states with higher populations get more seats in the House. Dating back to the Constitution it was agreed that every five slaves would count as three people or three-fifths of the slave population would be counted with regards to taxation and representation. This meant that in the South, slaves contributed to the population granting Southern states more representation in the House.

But because the slaves couldn’t vote or otherwise participate in the political process, it concentrated the South’s political power. A new variation of this system was implemented after the end of Reconstruction. Black people were no longer enslaved but once again blocked from voting or participating in the political process. The South continued to reap representative benefits from the presence of a large Black population. And Southern Democrats continued to maintain a stranglehold on the political structure in the South by preventing Black people from voting out racist politicians or against racist policies.

Through much of this, the North and West remained passive, whether due to indifference to the plight of Black people and/or for political expediency. To be clear, this wasn’t an overly advantageous system for all rank and file White people of the South as many of them were still poor. They weren’t getting over on the system or in comparison to wealthy White people but there was some privilege in comparison to most Black people.

By this point due to slavery, then Jim Crow, and now these New Deal programs of which many Black people were locked out there developed a wealth gap. And thus despite the tremendous gains made during the brief hiatus of Reconstruction much of that progress would be obliterated by Jim Crow and the Black community was further ravaged by the Great Depression. The White American economy was stabilized by the New Deal and its progressive programs. But the wealth gap between Black and White America only continued to widen as the plans were structured for the benefit of White people and the exclusion of Black people.

Now if you want to argue semantics, these programs weren’t designed to ensure that Black people would lose. (There were already racist power structures in place to increase the likelihood.) But rather to ensure that we would not progress on the same trajectory.

Katznelson points out that this question as to why these particular labor groups were being excluded from the New Deal programs was never discussed on the floor of the Senate or the House of Representatives. But given the times you still had politicians who were bold enough to publicly state their reason for these exclusions so as in later years this could not be explained away as something that happened by chance. And the reality is that when push came to shove, politicians from the North and West were once again willing to abandon Black people to compromise with racists for political expediency.

Something that I learned here is that as part of the New Deal a path was cleared for unionization, employees organizing for collective bargaining. I currently live in the suburbs of Atlanta but had previously lived all of my life in New York City. Unions seem to be more of a thing in New York than they are in Atlanta. It could just be my ignorance, but I don’t know of any unions in Atlanta. That’s not to say that they don’t exist, but at least they don’t seem to be as prevalent or maybe as vocal as those in New York.

There’s an interesting explanation of how the difference with unions came about. In trying to maintain the racial status quo in the South, politicians and other decision-makers really pushed back against unions. They felt that unions might end up organizing across racial lines. If you and I both work at the same company or we’re doing the same kind of work and we both become part of the union, our interests at least concerning work might be aligned. And with that as part of a collective bargain, a minimum wage and maximum hours might be agreed upon between the union and company or city.

To continue the oppression of Black workers it was important to avoid having any guidelines be established that might bring parity between Black and White workers. In efforts to specifically harm Black workers, there was disregard for working-class workers across the board. They didn’t want any guidelines or agreements to be put in place that might allow Black workers to elevate themselves or otherwise eliminate the loopholes for exploiting Black workers.

The two factions pulled together and passed these new laws. But if you look at events since then, it’s typically been the Southern states that push back against any kind of government aid, especially if it helps the poor and might trickle down to Black people thus allowing them to achieve some degree of progress. Since the end of slavery, there has been a concentrated effort in the South to keep Black people trapped as the lowest class in the social and economic hierarchy. But at the same time, there’s also a desire to push back against any advancements in other parts of the country that might result in Black people fleeing to those areas for better opportunities.

The goal wasn’t just to keep Black people poor for the fun of it. The aim was to keep Black people poor in the South and with few options elsewhere. This would ensure a perpetual class of citizens that could provide services and work for White people. It’s a continued but new form of the exploitative system that existed under slavery. But in this instance, you couldn’t decide to just blatantly not pay Black people anything to work or otherwise force them into servitude. Instead, the plan was to keep Black people subjugated to ensure a steady supply of cheap labor.

Dating back to the Revolutionary War and up until arguably the Vietnam War, there’s been a push and pull over Black men serving in the American military. Black men contributing to the Revolutionary War effort in the North helped to bring about emancipation for enslaved Black people in the North. Black men fighting in the Civil War helped to end slavery in the rest of America. Thus Black men fighting in America’s wars despite being treated as second-class citizens was seen as a potential pathway to Black people obtaining recognition of their voting and other civil/civic rights.

During WWII, America positioned itself on the world stage as being a democracy fighting against tyranny in Europe. This while Black people were being terrorized and otherwise prevented from exercising their rights due to Jim Crow in the South. As the ramp-up for WWII began Black Americans were once again faced with the question of whether or not it made sense to participate in a war, this time for democracy in Europe while still not being free at home.

Since around the time of WWII and even up to the present, a lot of people have served in the military because of the potential benefits such as educational resources, travel opportunities, etc. When Affirmative Action Was White points out that at the time leading up to WWII poor White men also had limited prospects. They might have had more options than Black men but were limited all the same.

Literacy was an issue across the board in the South and as it was bad for White people, it was terrible for Black people. Serving in the military provided an opportunity for White men to advance their education and improve their literacy. Demand for more bodies to contribute to the war effort created opportunities for more Black men to enlist. Now tasked with various jobs in the military it was realized that the efforts to keep Black people oppressed extended to keeping as many Black people as possible illiterate.

Illiteracy was also an issue in the North but not to the degree that it was in the South. With these young men now serving in the military, it was in the military’s best interest to ensure that they were at least functionally literate thus they needed to have basic education at a minimum. Crash courses were created for the recruits and by the end of the programs, they were able to read, write, and do basic arithmetic. Basic literacy combined with the other skills that they gained while serving in the military should have increased their post-war civilian job prospects.

As Katznelson points out, looking back through American history, Black people would push for progress in return for their contributions during wars. This occurred following the Revolutionary War and Civil War, though the gains made during Reconstruction would be largely rolled back by Jim Crow. The Civil War ended in the 1860s while Reconstruction ended in the 1870s. One might ask what was going on from that time to the start of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1950s. Why does it seem like in the late 1940s after WWII, there was a growing push for Black people’s civil rights to be observed?

Located in North America away from much of the fighting, America emerged as a superpower while the European nations rebuilt. Now a prominent player on the world stage, America began positioning itself as an egalitarian democracy committed to freedom and equality for all. Yet, the reality is that Black people had been continuously campaigning for civil rights even after Reconstruction ended and Jim Crow began.

When Affirmative Action Was White explains that this wasn’t a new push but rather an explosion of activism as Black servicemen returned from the war. Despite being treated as second-class citizens throughout America, Black men and women still joined the war effort. Many did so with the expectation that if the war was for freedom and democracy in Europe, contributing to the fight should help to ensure that their rights and humanity would be respected in America.

An immediate benefit of serving in WWII was that Black men who had limited access to receive an education at home were offered opportunities to improve their literacy. Also, those who were deployed to other parts of the country or overseas were able to leave their hometowns and saw more of the world. With these new experiences and after risking their lives, many were unwilling to return to being treated as second-class citizens. It’s no wonder that many of the men who would become key figures in the Civil Rights Movement served in WWII.

White soldiers had similarly benefited from serving in WWII by traveling, improved literacy, and learning new skills. But a key difference was that, unlike Black soldiers, White soldiers were offered the opportunity to move up the ranks and become officers. They were able to more easily transition back into civilian society and had a wider range of opportunities to choose from.

As with the New Deal of the 1930s, here was another instance of White people receiving benefits and assistance from the government to help them progress in society. Black people also received some assistance but it was a pittance in comparison and intended to ensure limited progress despite Black people starting from farther behind.

Much is made of the GI Bill which was implemented after WWII to provide an array of benefits for returning servicemen. Katznelson explains that these various benefits helped to substantially expand America’s White middle class. In combination with the New Deal programs, veterans now had even more available resources to help them obtain loans. In the post-war boom, government financing for new housing and increased availability of mortgages helped to establish the suburbs. Being able to more affordably purchase homes meant that veterans were able to begin building wealth for their families.

During the war, White soldiers received more opportunities to learn advanced skills and occupy leadership positions. These achievements which allowed them to advance during the war set them on a path of progress once the war was over. After the war, they were given opportunities to learn skilled trades and attend college or even grad school with the government footing the bill. Before the war and/or without financial assistance, these young men might have been limited to farm-related jobs or other forms of unskilled labor.

But with the new GI Bill programs in place, they were able to further their education which allowed them to get jobs that were better paid, more stable, safer, and required less physical labor. Having a job that pays well would enable you to pay a mortgage and cover other household expenses while still being able to send your children to school rather than keeping them home to work on a farm. Being able to do all of that while still saving should increase your likelihood of having a greater amount of wealth in old age, especially when combined with social security.

You might even be able to pay for your children to attend college and/or grad school where they could go on to become lawyers, doctors, or a host of other well-paid professions. With those well-paid jobs, they too should be able to purchase homes, especially if parents help them with a downpayment or they inherit property and other assets from a family member. It might not be that a relative dies and leaves a child $1 million but rather that a child might begin life with a solid financial foundation which provides them with more options and advantages throughout life.

This was a great plan and theoretically what we should all strive for through generations. If only the programs were colorblind. How the laws and programs were written at the federal level did not make direct stipulations about race but Katznelson shows how once again filters were applied at the state level. It went back to this thing of federal laws and financing but implementation with wide leeway for interpretation at the state level.

For example, funds were provided by the government to enable veterans to attend college. Returning White soldiers had a wide variety of undergrad colleges and graduate universities to which they could apply. But because of segregation, in much of the South, there were few if any schools of higher education that would accept Black students.

In some areas, there weren’t even high schools available for Black students. By default, a lot of Black veterans would have been limited to an eighth-grade education (and that’s if their family’s financial situation allowed them to get that far) before the war. This was still the case for many even after the war unless they were able to move to an area with more advanced schools for Black students. Black people had limited options for college and few HBCUs at the time offered graduate or doctorate programs.

Even the Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) which accepted Black students played a role in segregation. HBCUs did not receive the same degree of funding, resources, or other forms of support from the government in comparison to predominantly White institutions (PWI). And keep in mind that the economic limitations of the Black community meant that HBCU alumni did not have the same financial means as those of PWIs and thus couldn’t provide the same level of financial assistance.

PWI alumni were not limited by race in their career journey (though White women would have been limited by gender). They could typically obtain great-paying jobs that would enable them to take care of their financial responsibilities while still having some money left over to donate to their alma maters. And thus for a myriad of reasons, HBCUs wouldn’t be able to offer Black students the same resources or facilities as White students at PWIs.

Some HBCUs such as Tuskegee offered tracks that were meant to primarily prepare Black people for what was referred to as “black jobs” (ex: farm work/agriculture, domestic work, and maybe teaching). A Black college graduate would be lucky to become a teacher or minister but for many, even after completing school, they’d end up working on a farm, as a seamstress, or in a laundry. There were also income disparities where even if a Black graduate became a public school teacher they could be earning a fraction of the salary of a White public school teacher in the same school district.

Work programs were put in place by the government to help returning veterans find jobs. Once again White veterans found the world open to them and were able to transfer their skills, especially those who had been officers, into civilian jobs. In part, through these programs, they were able to obtain stable employment in jobs that paid a livable wage.

Conversely, Black veterans who sought out assistance from employment agencies, especially in the South, were typically steered towards what were viewed as “black jobs”. A Black serviceman might have been a carpenter, electrician, signals operator, or some other skilled job in the military but would then be pushed towards being a porter, janitor, or some other unskilled position. The pay typically wasn’t great but you’d be forced to choose between taking the job or not being allowed to claim unemployment as only in the rarest of cases, were Black veterans allowed to claim unemployment.

It was like another Declaration of Independence where there are all of these promises of freedom, opportunity, progress, and equality for all Americans. But the reality is that America is intended to be all of those things but primarily for White people, especially White men of a certain income level. As When Affirmative Action Was White moves through the different decades and explains various programs that were developed to help White people and families, it’s just example after example of Black people fighting for basic rights.

At the time that a mass of White America was moving up from working class to middle class and amassing generational wealth along the way, Black people were fighting to just be treated like human beings. Just the basics. A call began to rise for something to be done with the specific intent of elevating Black people. Not to put us in an artificial position of privilege or advantage over White people, despite the reverse being the norm for generations. But just to achieve parity or at least a leveling of the playing field after generations of having been handicapped or otherwise held back as far more had been done to benefit White people and allow some to progress.

In response, programs were now put in place to provide equal opportunity and guard against discrimination. But once again the people crafting the laws and language were determined to have the documents say the right things but allow for actions to do otherwise. This is why several programs that were introduced in the 1960s and 1970s offered a degree of progress for some Black people but didn’t change the circumstances of the day-to-day lives of most Black people. Laws meant to prevent discrimination made it quite difficult to prove discrimination or inequality. A workplace has to be so blatantly and egregiously unfair with regards to its hiring practices or its treatment of employees to make it possible for any allegations to stick.

Affirmative action has been somewhat reimagined to address the disparities experienced by Black people in America. In the present, some people argue against affirmative action and there’s a push for naive if not delusional colorblindness when looking at it in the past. When affirmative action programs were created to benefit White people the applicable laws weren’t written to openly state that they should solely benefit White people. Instead, the limitations were put in place at the point of implementation. Thus while the actions of local politicians, government workers, etc. were biased they could point to the law for cover.

As expressed and shown throughout When Affirmative Action Was White, these programs paid no mind to race in writing but certainly did in their real-world execution. Now when programs and policies blatantly state that marginalized and underserved communities should receive assistance through these programs, there is pushback. It’s regarded as being racist or biased against White people but this is because people are not looking back at history.

Some of it is a matter of people being honestly unaware while others are just being purposefully obtuse about the historical practices that created the conditions that these new programs are now required to rectify. In an attempt to shut down uncomfortable conversations, people call for us to all be color blind as they believe race doesn’t matter. But it most certainly did matter then and still matters now. Over time there has been a compounding of the past benefits and privileges that were specifically given to White people. Implementing new programs to correct those past inequalities and achieve some degree of parity for Black people is fair.

Throughout When Affirmative Action Was White I found myself agreeing with Katznelson as much of the information was fact-based but where I disagreed was on the topic of reparations. It’s not that I disagree with the idea of reparation. I think it is deserved given past injustices and the continued after-effects. But I’ve never heard anyone present a feasible idea for a lump sum payout (though it might be that I haven’t done enough research into ideas).

A major factor in America becoming such a wealthy nation was building its economy with an unpaid and later underpaid workforce. Not having to pay enslaved people and later creating a system to trap Black people in low-paid and/or dangerous jobs meant the work needed to build and sustain America could be done with tremendous cost savings.

The raw value of that work is one thing but how would you calculate a monetary value that takes into account the emotional damage and generational compounding? If you were able to come up with an amount, what would be the criteria for receiving reparations? Yet, while affirmative action in its current form has benefitted some Black people, it hasn’t gone nearly far enough.

The entire Black community needs to be addressed but programs should offer opportunities at the individual level. For example, the GI Bill was geared towards one group of people: veterans. In return for their sacrifice, they were provided assistance to pursue opportunities that would help them progress in life and provide better circumstances for their families. What’s stopping America from implementing a similar program for Black people in America? Maybe offer grants for learning trades or attending college, financing to start businesses, low or no-interest mortgages.

In the present, some people dismiss any conversations about inequality and related programs, whether historical or current, as Black people looking for handouts. Previous versions of affirmative action programs provided White people with favorable opportunities and advantages. Programs to help citizens progress and establish a solid foundation for themselves and their families were a good thing. The problem was that they often excluded Black people and worked in conjunction with structures aimed at oppressing Black progress. Some people complain that the past is the past and White people in the present shouldn’t be made to pay for the sins of their ancestors. At a basic level that sounds fair but it isn’t in reality.

Haiti was inexplicably made to pay reparations to France for freeing itself from slavery and colonial rule. They fought for their freedom and got it. And here it is that all of this time later, Haiti is a poor country in part because of being forced to repay the cost of its estimated loss of investment in the country. 100 million francs in 1825 which is equivalent to about $20 billion in today’s money. That’s absolute nonsense but should give some indication as to the value of slaves and their production to the colonial powers.

During WWII Jewish people and other marginalized groups in Europe lost their lives and property as valuables and such were confiscated during the Holocaust. After the war and Holocaust ended Jewish people rightfully appealed to military tribunals, courts, governments, banks, museums, etc. to reclaim their stolen property. Some 30-year-old living in Germany today wouldn’t have been around during the Holocaust. But that doesn’t mean the German government and other institutions shouldn’t do something to correct those past wrongs.

Like racism, I think people understand the need for affirmative action programs and reparations. But they push back and make excuses because it challenges their self-identity and might mean giving up privileges and advantages. The American government figured out how to get out of the Great Depression and reward veterans for serving in WWII. The same can be done to figure out how to create programs to make things right with Black people in return for previously excluding them from such programs.

It was interesting to read about the various policies and procedures throughout the years and their impact even into the present. When Affirmative Action Was White is an incredible book that isn’t very long but is informationally dense. I’m no scholar but I read When Affirmative Action Was White and found it very accessible. Sometimes books of this nature can be dry and academic but the language and explanations were very accessible and easy to understand. When Affirmative Action Was White is a book that I highly recommend.

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