When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America

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A groundbreaking work that exposes the twisted origins of affirmative action.
In this "penetrating new analysis" (New York Times Book Review) Ira Katznelson fundamentally recasts our understanding of twentieth-century American history and demonstrates that all the key programs passed during the New Deal and Fair Deal era of the 1930s and 1940s were created in a deeply discriminatory manner. Through mechanisms designed by Southern Democrats that specifically excluded maids and farm workers, the gap between blacks and whites actually widened despite postwar prosperity. In the words of noted historian Eric Foner, "Katznelson's incisive book should change the terms of debate about affirmative action, and about the last seventy years of American history."

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Editorial Reviews

Sanford D Horowitt - San Francisco Chronicle
“A fresh, highly readable, first-rate history.”
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
“Katznelson’s explosive analysis provides us with a new and painful understanding of how politics and race intersect.”
Nick Kotz - New York Times Book Review
“A penetrating new analysis.”
George M. Frederickson - New York Review of Books
“Ira Katznelson has made a major contribution to the affirmative action debate.... [His] book makes as strong a case as I have ever seen for vigorous action to bring about equal opportunities for African-Americans.”
David Oshinsky - The Nation
“A gem of a book.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“A fresh, highly readable, first-rate history of public policy that gives us new insights and arguments for addressing . . . undemocratic gaps of income and wealth.”— Sanford D Horowitt
Jonathan Yardley
As a work of history, When Affirmative Action Was White is useful … but the story Katznelson tells isn't about affirmative action in any way, shape or form. It's about bigotry, political opportunism and the misuse of power.
— The Washington Post
Nick Kotz
Katznelson argues that the case for affirmative action today is made more effectively by citing concrete history rather than through general exhortations. Studying the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society and the civil rights movements of the 1960's could not be more relevant at a time when the administration seems determined to weaken many of the federal programs that for decades have not just sustained the nation's minorities but built its solid middle class. Whether or not Katznelson's study directly influences the affirmative action debate, it serves an important purpose. With key parts of the Voting Rights Act set to expire in 2007 and other civil rights protections subject to change, we must understand a continuing reality: the insidious and recurrent racial bias in the history of American public life.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Rather than seeing affirmative action developing out of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Katznelson (Desolation and Enlightenment) finds its origins in the New Deal policies of the 1930s and 1940s. And instead of seeing it as a leg up for minorities, Katznelson argues that the prehistory of affirmative action was supported by Southern Democrats who were actually devoted to preserving a strict racial hierarchy, and that the resulting legislation was explicitly designed for the majority: its policies made certain, he argues, that whites received the full benefit of rising prosperity while blacks were deliberately left out. Katznelson supports this startling claim ingeniously, showing, for instance, that while the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act was a great boon for factory workers, it did nothing for maids and agricultural laborers-employment sectors dominated by blacks at the time-at the behest of Southern politicians. Similarly, Katznelson makes a strong case that the GI Bill, an ostensibly color-blind initiative, unfairly privileged white veterans by turning benefits administration over to local governments, thereby ensuring that Southern blacks would find it nearly impossible to participate. This intriguing study closes with suggestions for rectifying racial inequality, but its strongest merit is its subtle recalibration of a crucial piece of American history. (Aug.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Katznelson (political science & history, Columbia Univ.; Desolation and Enlightenment: Political Knowledge After Total War, Totalitarianism, and the Holocaust) offers history and analysis demonstrating that the national social welfare programs of 60 and 70 years ago-e.g., Social Security, labor laws that created collective bargaining for unions, and the GI Bill-in fact gave affirmative economic opportunities to whites at the expense of racial minorities, particularly blacks. At the time, powerful U.S. House and U.S Senate Southern Democratic votes were necessary to pass any social welfare legislation, mainly owing to unified Republican opposition to federal welfare program intervention in state and local matters. Thus, these legislative acts maintained state and local control over the administration of national policies in the South and elsewhere. Until comparatively recently, these practices created significant disadvantages for African Americans striving to become part of the middle class. Katznelson proposes new policy initiatives and urges American society to reposition its conceptions about affirmative action. His insightful analysis is strongly recommended for large public libraries and university libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/05.]-Steven Puro, St. Louis Univ. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393328516
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/14/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 171,437
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Ira Katznelson

Ira Katznelson is Columbia University's Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History. Having served as president of the American Political Science Association, he is a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. He is also the author of Fear Itself and When Affirmative Action Was White.

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Table of Contents

Preface : Du Bois's paradox
1 Doctor of laws 1
2 Welfare in black and white 25
3 Rules for work 53
4 Divisions in war 80
5 White veterans only 113
6 Johnson's ambitions, Powell's principles : thoughts on renewing affirmative action 142
App "To fulfull these rights" 173
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Customer Reviews

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