Jonathan Yardley has an excellent review of WHEN AFFIRMATIVE ACTION WAS WHITE: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, by Columbia professor Ira Katznelson, in today’s Washington Post.
Katznelson’s arguments are flawed, as Yardley points out, by controversial and even preachy assumptions about the meaning of both “affirmative action” and “equality.” As Yardley begins his review:
Ira Katznelson begins this study of how Southern Democrats warped New Deal legislation to deny blacks its benefits with a look back to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s notable speech “To Fulfill These Rights.” Delivered four decades ago as a commencement address at Howard University, at the height of Johnson’s effectiveness as civil rights president, the speech was “the first moment when a president from any region forcefully and visibly sponsored affirmative action for blacks.”
The problem, as Yardley points out, is that “[t]his was not affirmative action as the term is now commonly understood….” Today “affirmative action” means some amalgam of compensatory justice or the use of racial preferences to promote “diversity.” This is not,” Yardley notes, “what Johnson had in mind.”
Indeed it was not, although Katznelson’s error is quite common. It is based in large part on what I believe is a misinterpretation of Johnson’s Howard University speech of June 4, 1965. Here is the passage, under the heading “Freedom Is Not Enough,” often quoted to show Johnson’s support of what we now would (or should) call racial preferences:
But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.
You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.
Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.
This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.
Today we are accustomed to dealing with two very different standards to evaluate discrimination: an “intent” test, which requires finding a discriminatory intent in order to determine that a particular policy is discriminatory, and a “results” test, which does not require a finding of intent to determine that some “disparity” or “underrepresentation” is discriminatory. But that distinction had not emerged in 1965 when Johnson made his speech, and when he called for “equality as a fact and equality as a result” he did not mean proportional representation or an absolute equality of goods, money, assets, jobs, whatever that people mean today by “equality of results.”
What Johnson meant by “equality,” it is quite clear, is non-discriminatory equality of opportunity. The evidence? For starters, the very next sentence in Johnson’s speech, after the oft-quoted passage quoted above, states:
For the task is to give 20 million Negroes the same chance as every other American to learn and grow, to work and share in society, to develop their abilities–physical, mental and spiritual, and to pursue their individual happiness. [Emphasis added]
True, Johnson then says in the next sentence that “equal opportunity is essential, but not enough, not enough,” but in the remainder of the speech he does not really specify what more is needed, other than various forms of assistance there is no reason to assume would be conditioned on skin color as opposed to need.
Next, three months after his Howard speech, Johnson signed Executive Order 11246 which required “affirmative action” of government contractors. But note how “affirmative action” was defined:
The contractor will not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin. The contractor will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin. [Emphasis added]
The strength of Katznelson’s book is his demonstration that during the New Deal Southern Democrats worked, for the most part successfully, to make sure that blacks were excluded from the social welfare policies that played such a large role in creating the modern middle class.
“But it is not true,” Yardley argues persuasively and with great force,
that “affirmative action then was white.” He writes that “federal social welfare policy operated . . . as a perverse formula for affirmative action,” that the GI Bill acted as “affirmative action for whites,” that “all the major tools the federal government deployed during the New Deal and the Fair Deal created a powerful, if unstated, program of affirmative action for white Americans.” Et cetera. But this completely ignores the essential point that Katznelson himself makes elsewhere: The goal of Southern Democrats was to deny the benefits of these programs to blacks, not to create an “affirmative action” program for whites.
Katznelson, who in most other respects is scrupulous and fair-minded, in this instance has fallen into the clutches of what some of his fellow historians call “presentism” — judging the past by the standards of the present. “Affirmative action,” as we understand the term, did not exist in the 1930s and 1940s, and the Southern Democrats — bigoted and mean-spirited and self-interested though they most certainly were — did not intend to single out whites for special treatment in the way affirmative action now singles out African Americans and other minorities. They wanted, pure and simple, to keep blacks in their place, to maintain a feudal labor system that bordered on slavery, “not just to impede but veto the full and fair participation of African Americans in the most important welfare-oriented advances of the 1930s.”
The congressional Southerners weren’t affirming anything; they were denying blacks — Southern blacks most specifically — the benefits of federal programs that, had those benefits been extended to them, might have helped them overcome generations of discrimination and move into the American mainstream. The language of late-20th-century diversity engineering is irrelevant to what they were doing, and to cast it in that language is to distort it beyond recognition.
UPDATE [28 Sept. 2005]
Welcome, those of you who have just found your way here from the generous link by David Bernstein on the Volokh Conspiracy.
Here’s an additional thought, provoked by my re-reading Yardley’s review. Katznelson, as Yardley points out, makes the mistake of assuming that discrimination against one group amounts to “affirmative action” for all those not discriminated against. “Affirmative action,” in short, in this view is simply the other side of the coin of discrimination.
But, since coins have two sides, does it not follow that to give “affirmative action” to one group is, inexorably, to discriminate against the group or groups not receiving it?