At last night's final banquet of the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute, which prepares academically promising college juniors from historically underrepresented groups for graduate school in political science, Ira Katznelson of Columbia University (who is the president of the American Political Science Association) gave a fascinating talk about Southern politics that touched on something really important about the history of social programs in this country.
Last year, Katznelson published a book called When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. Here's what he found, as summarized in a Washington Post op-ed from last September:
It was during the administrations of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman that such great progressive policies as Social Security, protective labor laws and the GI Bill were adopted. But with them came something else that was quite destructive for the nation: what I have called "affirmative action for whites." During Jim Crow's last hurrah in the 1930s and 1940s, when southern members of Congress controlled the gateways to legislation, policy decisions dealing with welfare, work and war either excluded the vast majority of African Americans or treated them differently from others.
Between 1945 and 1955, the federal government transferred more than $100 billion to support retirement programs and fashion opportunities for job skills, education, homeownership and small-business formation. Together, these domestic programs dramatically reshaped the country's social structure by creating a modern, well-schooled, homeowning middle class. At no other time in American history had so much money and so many resources been targeted at the generation completing its education, entering the workforce and forming families.
But most blacks were left out of all this. Southern members of Congress used occupational exclusions and took advantage of American federalism to ensure that national policies would not disturb their region's racial order. Farmworkers and maids, the jobs held by most blacks in the South, were denied Social Security pensions and access to labor unions. Benefits for veterans were administered locally. The GI Bill adapted to "the southern way of life" by accommodating itself to segregation in higher education, to the job ceilings that local officials imposed on returning black soldiers and to a general unwillingness to offer loans to blacks even when such loans were insured by the federal government. Of the 3,229 GI Bill-guaranteed loans for homes, businesses and farms made in 1947 in Mississippi, for example, only two were offered to black veterans.
This is unsettling history, especially for those of us who keenly admire the New Deal and the Fair Deal. At the very moment a wide array of public policies were providing most white Americans with valuable tools to gain protection in their old age, good jobs, economic security, assets and middle-class status, black Americans were mainly left to fend for themselves. Ever since, American society has been confronted with the results of this twisted and unstated form of affirmative action.
I had no idea that the New Deal was so racially exclusionary. It's fascinating and disturbing stuff that Katznelson is exploring further in a new book project (the main subject of last night's talk) about how Southern Democrats used their stranglehold on Congress from 1932-1952 to shape national policy.