A Long History of Affirmative
Action - For Whites
Many middle-class white
people, especially those of us from the suburbs, like to think that we got to
where we are today by virtue of our merit - hard work, intelligence, pluck,
and maybe a little luck. And while we may be sympathetic to the plight of others,
we close down when we hear the words "affirmative action" or "racial
preferences." We worked hard, we made it on our own, the thinking goes,
why don't 'they'? After all, the Civil Rights Act was enacted almost 40 years
What we don't readily acknowledge
is that racial preferences have a long, institutional history in this country
- a white history. Here are a few ways in which government programs and practices
have channeled wealth and opportunities to white people at the expense of others.
Early Racial Preferences
We all know the old history,
but it's still worth reminding ourselves of its scale and scope. Affirmative
action in the American "workplace" first began in the late 17th century
when European indentured servants - the original source of unfree labor on the
new tobacco plantations of Virginia and Maryland - were replaced by African
slaves. In exchange for their support and their policing of the growing slave
population, lower-class Europeans won new rights, entitlements, and opportunities
from the planter elite.
White Americans were also
given a head start with the help of the U.S. Army. The 1830 Indian Removal Act,
for example, forcibly relocated Cherokee, Creeks and other eastern Indians to
west of the Mississippi River to make room for white settlers. The 1862 Homestead
Act followed suit, giving away millions of acres of what had been Indian Territory
west of the Mississippi. Ultimately, 270 million acres, or 10% of the total
land area of the United States, was converted to private hands, overwhelmingly
white, under Homestead Act provisions.
The 1790 Naturalization
Act permitted only "free white persons" to become naturalized citizens,
thus opening the doors to European immigrants but not others. Only citizens
could vote, serve on juries, hold office, and in some cases, even hold property.
In this century, Alien Land Laws passed in California and other states, reserved
farm land for white growers by preventing Asian immigrants, ineligible to become
citizens, from owning or leasing land. Immigration restrictions further limited
opportunities for nonwhite groups. Racial barriers to naturalized U.S. citizenship
weren't removed until the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952, and white racial preferences
in immigration remained until 1965.
In the South, the federal
government never followed through on General Sherman's Civil War plan to divide
up plantations and give each freed slave "40 acres and a mule" as
reparations. Only once was monetary compensation made for slavery, in Washington,
D.C. There, government officials paid up to $300 per slave upon emancipation
- not to the slaves, but to local slaveholders as compensation for loss of property.
When slavery ended, its
legacy lived on not only in the impoverished condition of Black people but in
the wealth and prosperity that accrued to white slaveowners and their descendents.
Economists who try to place a dollar value on how much white Americans have
profited from 200 years of unpaid slave labor, including interest, begin their
estimates at $1 trillion.
Jim Crow laws, instituted
in the late 19th and early 20th century and not overturned in many states until
the 1960s, reserved the best jobs, neighborhoods, schools and hospitals for
The Advantages Grow, Generation to Generation
Less known are more recent
government racial preferences, first enacted during the New Deal, that directed
wealth to white families and continue to shape life opportunities and chances.
The landmark Social Security
Act of 1935 provided a safety net for millions of workers, guaranteeing them
an income after retirement. But the act specifically excluded two occupations:
agricultural workers and domestic servants, who were predominately African American,
Mexican, and Asian. As low-income workers, they also had the least opportunity
to save for their retirement. They couldn't pass wealth on to their children.
Just the opposite. Their children had to support them.
Like Social Security, the
1935 Wagner Act helped establish an important new right for white people. By
granting unions the power of collective bargaining, it helped millions of white
workers gain entry into the middle class over the next 30 years. But the Wagner
Act permitted unions to exclude non-whites and deny them access to better paid
jobs and union protections and benefits such as health care, job security, and
pensions. Many craft unions remained nearly all-white well into the 1970s. In
1972, for example, every single one of the 3,000 members of Los Angeles Steam
Fitters Local #250 was still white.
But it was another racialized
New Deal program, the Federal Housing Administration, that helped generate much
of the wealth that so many white families enjoy today. These revolutionary programs
made it possible for millions of average white Americans - but not others -
to own a home for the first time. The government set up a national neighborhood
appraisal system, explicitly tying mortgage eligibility to race. Integrated
communities were ipso facto deemed a financial risk and made ineligible for
home loans, a policy known today as "redlining." Between 1934 and
1962, the federal government backed $120 billion of home loans. More than 98%
went to whites. Of the 350,000 new homes built with federal support in northern
California between 1946 and 1960, fewer than 100 went to African Americans.
These government programs
made possible the new segregated white suburbs that sprang up around the country
after World War II. Government subsidies for municipal services helped develop
and enhance these suburbs further, in turn fueling commercial investments. Freeways
tied the new suburbs to central business districts, but they often cut through
and destroyed the vitality of non-white neighborhoods in the central city.
Today, Black and Latino
mortgage applicants are still 60% more likely than whites to be turned down
for a loan, even after controlling for employment, financial, and neighborhood
factors. According to the Census, whites are more likely to be segregated than
any other group. As recently as 1993, 86% of suburban whites still lived in
neighborhoods with a black population of less than 1%.
Reaping the Rewards of Racial Preference
One result of the generations
of preferential treatment for whites is that a typical white family today has
on average eight times the assets, or net worth, of a typical African American
family, according to economist Edward Wolff. Even when families of the same
income are compared, white families have more than twice the wealth of Black
families. Much of that wealth difference can be attributed to the value of one's
home, and how much one inherited from parents.
But a family's net worth is not simply the finish line, it's also the starting
point for the next generation. Those with wealth pass their assets on to their
children - by financing a college education, lending a hand during hard times,
or assisting with the down payment for a home. Some economists estimate that
up to 80 percent of lifetime wealth accumulation depends on these intergenerational
transfers. White advantage is passed down, from parent to child to grand-child.
As a result, the racial wealth gap - and the head start enjoyed by whites -
appears to have grown since the civil rights days.
In 1865, just after Emancipation,
it is not surprising that African Americans owned 0.5 percent of the total worth
of the United States. But by 1990, a full 135 years after the abolition of slavery,
Black Americans still possessed only a meager 1 percent of national wealth.
Rather than recognize how "racial preferences" have tilted the playing
field and given us a head start in life, many whites continue to believe that
race does not affect our lives. Instead, we chastise others for not achieving
what we have; we even invert the situation and accuse non-whites of using "the
race card" to advance themselves.
Or we suggest that differential
outcomes may simply result from differences in "natural" ability or
motivation. However, sociologist Dalton Conley's research shows that when we
compare the performance of families across racial lines who make not just the
same income, but also hold similar net worth, a very interesting thing happens:
many of the racial disparities in education, graduation rates, welfare usage
and other outcomes disappear. The "performance gap" between whites
and nonwhites is a product not of nature, but unequal circumstances.
Colorblind policies that
treat everyone the same, no exceptions for minorities, are often counter-posed
against affirmative action. But colorblindness today merely bolsters the unfair
advantages that color-coded practices have enabled white Americans to long accumulate.
It's a little late in the
game to say that race shouldn't matter.
Copyright (c) California
RACE - The Power of an Illusion
A three-part documentary series from California Newsreel
For more information or video purchase: www.newsreel.org
Visit the companion web site at http://www.PBS.org/Race