Barry’s Blog # 133: Affirmative Action for White People

Question: What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?

Answer: I don’t know, and I don’t care!

We need to talk, because one of the most fundamental aspects of privilege — the privilege to ignore, the privilege to remain innocent in our minds – still retains its durability among far too many of us. We need to talk about how America established that privilege – in law – from the very beginning. In other words, I’m talking about America’s long history of Affirmative Action for whites.

Other than abortion, no domestic issue has been as controversial and divisive over the past forty years as affirmative action. Reactionary and opportunistic politicians have used it to create a wedge between working class whites and blacks. In doing so, they have duped two generations of misinformed whites into perceiving themselves as victims of people whom they used to regard as natural allies. But this is hardly the first time this has happened, and it has been enshrined in law.

So we need to learn how the federal government has instituted affirmative action for white people many times over the course of our history, and that this reality is a fundamental aspect of the Myth of Innocence.

1680: After suppressing Bacon’s Rebellion, an event in which whites and blacks together attempted to overthrow the system of indentured servitude, Virginia codified its bondage system. It replaced the terms “Christian” or “free” with “white,” gave new privileges to Caucasians, removed certain rights from free blacks and banned interracial marriage. Other laws contributed to what Theodore Allen calls the “absolutely unique American form of male supremacism” – the right of any Euro-American to rape any African-American without fear of reprisal. This system was soon copied by most of the colonies.

1790: The Naturalization Act allowed virtually any European immigrant to become a citizen, while denying the privilege to Asians. Over the next 120 years, Congress passed many other definitions of who was “us” and who wasn’t – especially concerning black people – which served as models for the almost entirely invisible white privilege that would bolster the Reagan “revolution” many decades later. By then, structures of oppression would be so effective precisely because they seemed so natural.

1835-1840:  Historians consider “Jacksonian Democracy” the period when the government increased political freedoms. But it did so for only for white men, while removing them from Native Americans. Race, rather than civilized behavior or Christian belief (both held in abundance by the Cherokees, one of the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes”), now determined citizenship. The tribes lost their land and were forced to endure the murderous Trail of Tears, while thousands of whites bought up their land for pennies on the dollar.

1865: For 175 years, with few exceptions, “freedom” had been synonymous with “whiteness.” Emancipation of the slaves ended this consensus and contributed to a great uneasiness and identity crisis among whites. “Freedom” was no longer one of the concepts that defined whiteness.

With the end of Reconstruction, as Southern whites regained control of their states, they created new laws that prevented most blacks from acquiring western land and kept them as de facto slaves in the South. Homesteading – the ability to acquire free land – became a privilege of whiteness. In the southwest, similar systems targeted Latinos. No wonder our picture of the hardy “pioneers” is lily-white.

1892: The Supreme Court’s “Separate but Equal” ruling institutionalized segregation and poor schooling for Blacks and residential privilege for whites. Soon, almost all Southern blacks lost their right to vote and were unable to prevent the establishment of the legal foundation for a national education system that, for the next 65 years, would discriminate against blacks and provide educational access and jobs for whites.

And even after that, white flight and de facto segregation would perpetuate those conditions. A significant contemporary version of this unequal world is the fact that the United States, practically unique among nations, funds its schools through property taxes. This gives wealthy suburbs massive advantages over inner city neighborhoods.

1912: Woodrow Wilson segregated federal jobs, once again giving whites privileged access to well-paid government work. Throughout these years, every time a person of color (in government or not) was denied a decent-paying job or educational position – and the long-term opportunities they might have provided – a white person almost certainly received it.  We have to emphasize this point. Liberals are comfortable acknowledging the history of discrimination. But it takes a further leap of logic to realize something that is patently obvious to people of color. Discrimination is not a single-lane road. Each time a black person is pushed to the back of the line, a white person steps to the front. This is the essence of privilege.

1930s: As the Founders had done in 1776, Franklin Roosevelt unified northern liberals and southern conservatives. But, like them, he had to maintain silence on race, fearing that his coalition would disintegrate. Southern politicians, who defeated over 200 anti-lynching bills, supported the new program of Social Security only if it excluded agricultural laborers and domestic servants. This compromise deliberately kept some 65% of blacks outside of the protections of the welfare state, including minimum wages. In the South, that number was 70-80%.

In a decade when even large numbers of whites faced starvation, people of color received far less assistance from government than did white people. Far more white farmers than black were able to keep their farms. In addition, Black industrial workers in the North discovered that Social Security itself was unfair, because it used money they contributed to pay benefits disproportionately to affluent whites, who lived longer than most blacks.

Ira Katznelson, in the classic book When Affirmative Action Was White, writes that for two-thirds of the twentieth century:

The federal government, though seemingly race-neutral, functioned as a commanding instrument of white privilege…The Democratic Party that fashioned and superintended the New Deal and Fair Deal combined two different political systems: one that was incorporating new groups and voters, who had arrived from overseas or had migrated from the South; the other still an authoritarian one-party system, still beholden to racial separation.

Southern seniority was exaggerated by not having to compete in a two-party system. Members from the region thus secured a disproportionate number of committee chairmanships, giving them special gatekeeping powers.

They used three mechanisms. First, whenever the nature of the legislation permitted, they sought to leave out as many African Americans as they could…Second, they successfully insisted that the administration of these and other laws, including assistance to the poor and support for veterans, be placed in the hands of local officials who were deeply hostile to black aspirations. Third, they prevented Congress from attaching any sort of anti-discrimination provisions to aide an array of social welfare programs such as community health services, school lunches, and hospital construction grants…

Since blacks counted in the numbers reported by the census, their large presence combined with their frequent inability to vote allowed white citizens to gain representation in higher proportions than their population in the House of Representatives…The Senate, with its distribution of two seats for each state, conferred on its seventeen racially segregated states a veto on all legislative enactments they did not like. When this power was deployed, as it was in matters of relief and social insurance, it seriously widened the racial gap. Federal social welfare policy operated, in short, not just as an instrument of racial discrimination but as a perverse formula for affirmative action.

Blacks who had migrated northward to take advantage of job prospects often found themselves victimized by the “last hired, first fired” principle. For more, see here.

World War Two: Participation in imperial wars is a dubious and difficult moral question. But it is true that the military – and, eventually, an integrated military – has long offered opportunities for working class Americans to enter the middle class. Kaznelson, however, makes it clear that blacks were inducted at much lower rates than whites, received discriminatory treatment (including health care and training for higher status positions), and served in legally segregated units. He concludes:

…for most African American individuals, and certainly for the group as a whole, war service ended with a wider gap between whites and blacks, as white access to training and occupational advancement moved ahead at a much more vigorous rate.

Post-World War Two: The G.I. Bill created the American middle class, but almost exclusively for whites. First of all, far lower percentages of blacks than whites had been allowed to serve, and thus to qualify for its benefits. Secondly, Southern politicians made sure that “it was deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow,” and that it placed nearly impassible boundaries in front of black veterans. Because implementation, including unemployment insurance, loans and funding for college-level education, was left to all-white local officials, “the playing field was never level.”  Only one in twelve job training programs in the South admitted blacks, while the white working class received the training that opened further opportunities.

The G.I. Bill financed 90% of the 13 million houses constructed in the 1950s. However, Southerners made sure that 98% of those homes went to whites, even when home construction was in the North. Of 350,000 federally subsidized homes built in Northern California between 1946 and 1960, fewer than 100 went to blacks, as did none of the 82,000 homes built in Levittown, New York. People of color remained locked in the inner cities, their dwellings and businesses often torn down to make room for the interstates that would shuttle whites to the suburbs where only they could live.

This was the period when Southern Democratic congressman, many of whom had supported New Deal programs that improved labor rights, began to shift their allegiance to anti-union Republicans, eventually reversing the Democratic hold on the South.

The 1960s: Three-fourths of the one million persons displaced from their homes by the Interstate Highway Program were black. A fifth of all African American housing in the nation was destroyed. The government was reducing the housing stock for blacks at the same time it was expanding it for whites. In fact, since the highway program made “white flight” easier, we can even say that white middle-class housing access – affirmative action – was made possible because of the destruction of housing for African American and Latino communities.

1985-present: The War on Drugs has disenfranchised over six million people, two million of whom are black. This simple fact has utterly determined the course of recent history.

Let me say that again: This simple fact has utterly determined the course of history.

The more African-Americans a state contains, the more likely it is to ban felons. The average state disenfranchises 2.4 % of its voting-age population but 8.4 % of blacks. In fourteen states, the share of blacks stripped of the vote exceeds 10%, and in five states it exceeds twenty percent. While 75% of whites register, only 60% of blacks can. Over a dozen Republican senators owe their election to these laws.

Had felons been allowed to vote in 2000, Al Gore’s popular vote margin would have doubled to a million. If Florida had allowed just ex-felons to vote, he still would have carried the state by 30,000 votes and with it the presidency. Would he have invaded Iraq and Afghanistan? Would we all have had to endure a bogus war on terror that has cost trillions of dollars and killed several million people? Would the Supreme Court be on the verge of banning abortion? Would the government be leading the world in a race toward a petrochemically-induced climate disaster?

In 2019 we also have to acknowledge the ongoing voter suppression, gerrymandering and computer fraud in over twenty states, all of which have contributed to Republican control of Congress, the Presidency and the Supreme Court. And these conditions existed beforethe Court disemboweled the Voting Rights Act in 2013. After that decision, the 2016 election became the first in fifty years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.

And while we’re at it, let’s take note of another fact: These numbers do not include Americans residing in Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands, all of whom are considered U.S. nationals, not citizens, and can vote in primaries but not the general election. This is an aggregate population of nearly four million people – nearly all of them people of color. Imagine if they could vote for President…

They are part of a much larger group, those who for all reasons are ineligible to vote, including prisoners and college students on campuses not in their home districts. The adult population is 245 million, and 220 million are eligible to vote (about half of whom actually do). This results in a staggering number: some fifteen to twenty million American adults – at least half of them people of color –  are not permitted to vote.

Of course, due to the effort and sacrifices of the Civil Rights movement, most of the older patterns have disappeared. But the long-term consequences of 275 years of discrimination remain as a cruel reality. Due to home equity inflation and resulting family inheritance, as well as the exclusion from Social Security and unequal access to capital, an average black family still has one eleventh of the wealth of a white family, even when they make the same income.

The final indignity is that most of this vast accumulation of affirmative action for white people is not common knowledge, either in the news media, in politics or at any level of the educational system, including universities. This means that whites have been given free rein to wallow in their ignorance, and thus in their unacknowledged privilege. It means that, most whites have been able to live out their lives completely unaware of the long term, institutional factors that have kept people of color down – and themselves up.

In mythological and theological terms, this means that large numbers of whites are still able to perceive their own happy status as deserved, and the impoverished conditions of millions of black people as their own fault. And when whites feel that they are falling backwards in the rat race, the politicians have provided them with a ready-to-order scapegoat: affirmative action – “discrimination” in favor of those same undeserving, lazy minorities. And the growing realization that whites themselves will be actual minorities (as they are already are in California) soon is a source of terror.

This has been a brief outline of our history of affirmative action for whites. Keep it in mind the next time some fool starts to rant about how minorities get all the breaks.

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