RACE - The Power of an Illusion
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 ago.
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 PreferencesWe 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. (The
Virginia legislature made the term "white" a legal distinction in 1691, after a
series of joint rebellions by European and African servants, culminating in
Bacon's Rebellion of 1676, nearly brought down the colonial ruling powers. In
the slave codes of 1705, especially in the "Act concerning servants and
slaves", colonial rulers gave poor 'whites' certain legislated privileges,
such as a small plot of land or "freedom dues" (wages) after completion of their
term of servitude; the right to sue their masters in court; and exemption from
public whipping for punishment! At the same time, the legislature wrote the laws
which provided the institutionalized foundations for chattel slavery for
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
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.
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 white people.
The Advantages Grow, Generation to GenerationLess 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.
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
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 PreferenceOne 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
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.