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Wetness, whiteness, and affirmative action.

I have a question for white folks reading this: Have you or your family benefitted from affirmative action laws or policies? If your answer is ‘no’ I wonder if you will feel differently after reading this post.

The first official use of the term in the US was Executive Order 10925  "Executive Order No. 10925"  by JFK on 6 March 1961. That order included the requirement that government contractors "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin". In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued Executive Order 11246 which required government employers to take "affirmative action" to "hire without regard to race, religion and national origin". This prevented employers from discriminating against members of disadvantaged groups. In 1967, gender was added to the anti-discrimination list.

Affirmative action is usually defined as laws and policies designed to support members of a disadvantaged population. This framing, while technically accurate, ignores the fact that from the very beginning in the 17th Century the United States has been successfully designed to favor whites and to protect white privilege.  In a very real sense, our America is a country where affirmative action for whites has been built into our laws and culture from the beginning. Like the air we breathe, the cumulative advantages accruing from white affirmative action are so normal and pervasive that we (whites) don’t notice them - until someone tries to level the playing field. Then we instinctively - if irrationally - feel threatened and victimized.  In the words of Joni Mitchell:

Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got

Til it’s gone.


Let’s review just some of the evidence for this.

During the early colonial days, (mostly white) indentured servants were the primary source of free domestic and agricultural labor. These Europeans were eligible for citizenship and its benefits, including voting, serving on juries or representing oneself in court, owning businesses, holding office, often even owning property. By the end of the 18th Century, (mostly black) slaves had become the primary source of labor and with the 1790 Naturalization Act eligibility for citizenship was changed explicitly from Europeans to only ‘free white persons’.

During a century or more of Westward expansion, the goal was consistently to make room for (white European) settlers. The indigenous (original or native) Americans were systematically displaced and often the targets of near-genocide to make room for (white European) settlers. Cherokees and Creeks moved west of Mississippi to make room for whites. With the Homestead Act of 1862,  270 million acres west of Mississippi (10% of US land, all taken from Native Americans) was given away - to white settlers. The Alien Land Laws in California and other western states were passed to prevent Asian immigrants from owning or leasing land, again reserving land ownership for whites. Racial preferences for immigration persisted officials until 1965.

Racial barriers for citizenship persisted until the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952.

Voting rights is an area where the American tradition of white (male) privilege is painfully clear.  When George Washington took office in 1789, only 6% of the population was eligible to vote.  In 1790, the Naturalization Act limited citizenship to free whites. In 1856, North Carolina was the last state to remove property ownership as a requirement for voting. At this point voting is possible for all (white) men. In 1868, the 14th Amendment gives freed (male) slaves citizenship and in 1870 the 15th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race, but voting laws were left to the states and Jim Crow laws prevented most blacks from voting with literacy tests and poll taxes. In 1876 the Supreme Court held that Native Americans were not white and could not vote. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act barred immigrants of Chinese ancestry from citizenship. In 1887, the Dawes Act gave Native Americans the option of relinquishing their tribal affiliation and becoming citizens and in 1890 the Indian Naturalization Act made Native Americans apply for citizenship through the same process as immigrants. In 1922, the Supreme Court ruled that people of Japanese heritage were ineligible for citizenship. In 1923 it ruled that people of Asian Indian heritage were ineligible for citizenship. (This was not reversed until the McCarran Walter Act of 1952.) In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act gave all Native Americans the right to vote, but the last laws blocking Native Americans from voting were not overturned until 1948.  In 1964, the 24th Amendment forbade poll taxes, widely used to block voting by people of color.

After the Civil War, Jim Crow laws and and emphasis on states’ rights were widely used, not just to prevent blacks from voting, but also to ensure that the best jobs, schools, neighborhoods, and hospitals were available only to whites. Many of these laws passed in 19th and early 20th Century lasted until 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement.

The New Deal created a strong WHITE middle class. The Social Security Act of 1935 provided a safety net and retirement protection, but excluded agricultural workers and domestic servants, all of whom were predominantly people of color (African Americans, Mexicans, Asians).  The Wagner Act of 1935 allowed unions to do collective bargaining - but also allowed them to exclude blacks and deny people of color the best jobs, health insurance or other benefits. Many unions were either all white or mostly white and stayed that way for a long time. The 3000 members of the Los Angeles Steam Fitters Local #25, for example, was still all white in 1972. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) made it possible for the average WHITE American to become a homeowner. It set up a national neighborhood appraisal system that explicitly tied mortgage availability to race (redlining) and between 1934 and 1962, fully 98% of the $120,000,000 loans went to whites. Of 350,000 new homes built in California with Federal support between 1946 and 1960, fewer than 100 went to blacks. This led to the steady growth of segregated white suburbs after WWII. After WWII, these de facto segregated (white) suburbs got enhanced municipal services, better education, and better connections to transportation infrastructure, all of which led to better commercial investment and more jobs. Because thirty-six percent of education funding comes from local property taxes, schools in largely affluent or middle class white neighborhoods get more money than schools in predominantly black neighborhoods. Three quarters of blacks tend schools where a majority of the students are poor.  The average non-white school district gets $2,226 less per student than the average white district. It’s easier to get into college if you are white, even controlling for wealth: children of white parents in the top 20% of income get into college at a higher rate than children of the top 0.1% of non-white parents.  Because of redlining and de facto segregation, the average home in a black neighborhood is devalued by about $48,000. Freeways were built to connect white population centers and often cut through (or cut off) black population centers. As recently as 1993, 86% of suburban whites lived in neighborhoods with a black population of < 1%.

The GI Bill (Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944) provided a massive boost for returning veterans. This moved many ethnic groups from eastern and southern Europe into the middle class, but blacks were not so lucky. First, many blacks were either not allowed into the armed forces, or were made to serve in adjunctive capacities outside the military making them ineligible for benefits. In addition, it was structured so that the benefits were administered at the state level and were largely unavailable to black veterans.

As a result of four centuries of laws and policies that consistently (and intentionally) favored whites (white affirmative action) we have a white-dominated society. The average white family has eight times the assets of the average black family. Those with wealth pass a significant portion of their wealth to the next generation by paying for education, helping with mortgages, contributing to start-up costs, and the like.  About 80% of the wealth possessed by white families is dependent on this intergenerational transfer. Those at the bottom of the economic scale (disproportionately people of color) use a significant portion of their income to support their parents and do not have the ability to pass wealth on to their children.


If you are a white American, you have been born into and benefitted from a system that has given your ancestors and you many advantages. The question is not whether or not you have benefitted directly or indirectly from white affirmative action. The two questions are: (1) can you admit it? and (2) what will you do about it?


Further reading is here, here, here and in When Affirmative Action was White by Katznelson.











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