IRA KATZNELSON. When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. Pp. 272. Pp. 368. $16.95. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-393-32851-6.

When Affirmative Action was White is the eleventh book published by Ira Katznelson, an American political scientist and historian currently teaching in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University in New York. Written as a trade publication for a popular American audience, this short and straightforward book details the racialized history of the New Deal and Fair Deal eras of the 1930s and 1940s in order to provide an historical argument to the current policy debate about affirmative action in the United States. Katznelson argues the current debate about affirmative action has reached a rhetorical impasse, where both opponents and proponents of the debate have ignored historical arguments to the detriment of racial progress. As a result, he wants to inject the policy debate with a new historical component, claiming that addressing modern racial inequalities requires connecting “specific past harms to present remedies.” Katznelson believes a history of white privilege and racism during the New Deal and Fair Deal eras is necessary for shifting popular connotations of affirmative action from a superficial emphasis on “jobs” and “employment” to an emphasis on more-meaningful, restorative justice.[1]

When Affirmative Action was White may be divided into two sections. The first section is devoted to explaining why the New Deal and Fair Deal eras of the 1930s and 1940s amounted to a period of widespread, government-sponsored racial privilege for whites and growing discrimination for blacks. The second section is devoted to arguing how the history of this period should inform the policy debate of the modern era, a debate which has more traditionally been traced to 1961, when the phrase affirmative action first entered the American vocabulary.

To Katznelson, the federal initiatives of the 1930s and 1940s contributed to growing racial disparities in at least three ways. First, there were programs and policies like the NRA, FERA, Wagner Act, Social Security Act, AAA, and Fair Labor Standards Act that directly excluded black groups in industries like service, agricultural, and domestic work. Second, there were policies like the Selective Service Readjustment Act (the GI Bill of Rights) that were equal in language yet discriminatory in application. Southern congressmen and their Democratic allies in the North made sure the administration of these laws were intentionally allocated to racist state and local authorities. These authorities were virtually all white and all determined to uphold the manifold racist practices of Jim Crow. Third, there was a more-general willingness of the Democrats in political power to kowtow to the racist interests of their Southern allies. This category includes Democrats refusing to pass an anti-lynching bill, to desegregate the military, or to enforce equal representation in the workforce and equality in the workplace and schoolroom.

Katznelson’s book is a groundbreaking, evocative, iconoclastic attempt to use history as a tool for modern social change. He believes the discriminatory practices of the New and Fair Deal eras were once embodied by Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 speech at the HBCU Howard University, and Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell’s majority opinion in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978. Both of these figures believed that anti-affirmative-action arguments of color-blindness and merit ignored the historical realities of racial oppression. They believed that race should not be ignored and that the growing gap between blacks and whites needed to be addressed. Katznelson has tried to give us an historical model by which to address that gap. If the policies of the New and Fair Deals had the power to bestow widespread advantages upon white people—including specific groups like Catholic immigrants and Jews—in the 1930s and 1940s, then surely we can craft policies that do the same for black America today.

Of course, no matter how effective an argument and its presentation might be (and in this case, the present reviewer believes that they are both extremely effective), an argumentative book is never without its weaknesses. Katznelson bases his study upon at least three assumptions that some readers will see as problematic. He states that “public policies…have been the most decisive instruments dividing Americans into different racial groups.” Perhaps this is so, but what are public policies if not reflections of deep-seated desires, usually stemming from the majority?[2]

Next, Katznelson claims at several points that New and Fair Deal politicians were powerless in the face of Southern racists. After 1965, anti-racist policies were “politically impossible.” Before this, anti-racists were “more unable to defeat Jim Crow than [able] to decimate Germany and Japan’s massive forces,” and “any crusade to break out of the [the South’s] power restraints would have been doomed to fail, even if the president had been willing.” Perhaps these statements offer too much of an apology for northern politicians who chose not to give Southern, racist defenders of the Jim Crow system the fight they truly deserved. In considering this critique, we can recall Katznelson’s statement that “impediments were not confined to the South. In New York and the northern New Jersey suburbs, fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the GI Bill supported home purchases by non-whites.” Overall, Katznelson demonstrates without a doubt that Southerners, ranging from the Mississippi senator John Rankin to the West Virginia delegate Robert Byrd, were devoted racists. But what were non-Southerners? More importantly, what reliable evidence do we actually have that white, “non-racist” majorities are any more willing to give up their positions of privilege now than they were in either the 1930s or 1940s, when so many of them were willing to look the other way?[3]

Finally, Katznelson persuasively argues that “affirmative action during the Democratic administrations of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman had ben exclusively white.” But cynical readers may be left wondering, was there really a time in American history—Reconstruction included—where this was not at least generally the case? From the Virginia Slave Laws of 1662 to the police brutality and mass incarceration trends of our age, how exceptional are the New and Fair Deals, at least in respect to their extensions of racial privileges? While this idea may not affect the righteousness of Katznelson’s claims, it does affect the broader picture of what modern advocates for affirmative action are truly up against.[4]

[1] Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), 159, xii.

[2] Ibid. 172.

[3] Ibid. 144, 112, 28, 140.

[4] Ibid. 140.