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Culture: The History of Affirmative Action
Wednesday, 01 November 2006 Written by Henry Midgley
US Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt,
Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson
Harry Belafonte on a recent Bill Maher show talked of the peaks and troughs of the Black Experience in the United States- he mentioned the conventional moments that might be included in any liberal history of the twentieth century- the New Deal, the Fair Deal and the Great Society, evoking memories of those great campaigners for black civil rights, Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson. Notice though that I have missed out one great President from that rollcall of civil rights honour- Ira Katznelson's recent study which has summed up a large amount of other scholarship shows that despite President Roosevelt's best intentions the New Deal and some of Truman's Fair Deal were redistributionary programs which avoided redistributing to one of the poorest sectors of the country- the Southern Blacks. Katznelson goes on to recommend that we should balance out this white affirmative action with affirmative action now for blacks.

Katznelson argues that the New Dealers and later Fair Dealers needed Southern Democrats to vote with their program for it to win support. So he suggests they crafted a coalition which obtained the New Deal but at a price. The price was that the Southern Senators were able to ammend the legislation in three key ways- firstly by drawing up the legislation so that it did not apply to occupations in which blacks worked, secondly by making sure that all the administration of the bill was at a local not a federal level and thirdly by excluding any anti-discrimination clauses from the bills. Consequently the New Deal, GI bill and Fair Deal though intended often to be colour blind, were programs which benefitted many Whites and comparatively fewer Blacks. The consequences of these policies in the 30s and 40s influenced even the conduct of the second world war, with far fewer blacks being called up than whites, and those that were called up being placed in segregated units. Various reviewers have attacked the title of the book- when affirmative action was white- by arguing that what happened shouldn't be classified as affirmative action but few have criticised Katznelson's central historical point.

Katznelson wants us to reflect upon this and find within it the solutions to America's racial problems. He wants us to reflect upon it and then find a way of compensating through various programs: a new GI bill for those whose ancestors weren't allowed to benefit from the first, recompense for those who were excluded from the government programs of the New Deal and a recognition that many of the problems America deals with now are founded upon what happened in the 1950s and 1960s when White income grew much faster than black and when Whites accumulated capitol at a rate Blacks didn't.

Katznelson definitely contributes an interesting piece to our understanding of the problems that historically blacks have faced: this book will hopefully get the sense of the New Deal he and many other historians have outside of the academic world and into the popular consciousness. But his policy prescriptions do come with some serious caveats- questions that he needs to answer. Firstly why stop at the 1930s, why not go back to the Civil War and legacy of slavery? Katznelson argues that such an agenda is not practical but beyond that gives no philosophical argument to suggest as to how it isn't right- afterall when once embarked upon this course of restitution does one stop. Secondly on an opposing point why should people compensate others for what a set of ancestors did to another set of ancestors- visiting the sins of the fathers upon the sons is not a liberal attitude nor is it one we often take in our society? Katznelson attempts to tackle this but needs to expand upon his reasons for dismissing this objection before he does so.

Katznelson's book may therefore be flawed but he does raise some interesting points- some he doesn't mention for example he doesn't describe what this says about the need for vigilance about limitations on the way that benefits are offered. If a benefit is offered and one occupation is excluded from it, the reasons, we can take from the New Deal case, may not be as advertised but may relate to prejudice. Overall this is a book to read- if only to learn about what blacks suffered from under the New Deal, its political arguments will provoke but they are interesting and worth hearing and maybe need expanding- far less controversial is its racial history- and maybe if there is one lesson that we should draw from it then its one that Katznelson doesn't draw- we should always remember to be vigilant as to why people are excluded from benefits offered within our society.