A Long History of Racial Preferences
(Alternative Viewpoint) at bottom; two different viewpoints.
Many middle-class white people,
especially those of us who grew up in 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, it's been almost 40 years now since
the Civil Rights Act was passed.
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
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 un-free 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
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 - for free - 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. From the 1860s to the
1920s, dozens of towns and counties across America violently expelled entire
African American communities, forcing thousands of black families to flee their
homes, businesses, and hard earned wealth. A century later, these towns remain
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 slave owners and their descendants.
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 white people.
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
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 New York University 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 only 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. As legal
scholar John Powell (sic) says in the documentary series Race - The Power of an
Illusion, "The slick thing about whiteness is that whites are getting the
spoils of a racist system even if they are not personally racist."
But 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 that 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.
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.
Isn't it a little late in the
game to suddenly decide that race shouldn't matter?
AFFIRMATIVE ACTION AS RACIAL PREFERENCE:
SIX OBJECTIONS AND AN ALTERNATIVE
By Curtis Crawford (1995)
Can both articles be true?
The most frequent objection to affirmative action, when it takes the form of preferential treatment for minorities, is that it discriminates because of race. This objection is fundamental. Nevertheless, there are others, which deserve far more attention than they receive.
Affirmative action as racial preference is often compelled by government. It operates by lowering standards of selection, rather than by preparing people to meet regular standards. It has no clear criteria as to which groups should receive preference. It is secretive and duplicitous. It does not reflect the will of the people, and it was not adopted by their representatives in Congress.
These objections, if warranted, will guide us to a better policy. But before expounding them, let me insert a brief description of affirmative action and the problem it was designed to solve.
Affirmative action began three decades ago with efforts to ensure the elimination of discriminatory practices but soon developed into programs conferring special treatment, particularly in higher education and employment. Decisions typically affected have been admission to college and graduate school; and hiring, promotion and training for both private and governmental employment. The groups now regularly designated for favorable treatment based on race or ethnicity are blacks, Hispanics and American Indians. Asians sometimes receive it; whites, never. The advantage is usually conferred by applying a double standard, whereby the requirements for selection are less exacting for members of the favored group.
Between 1950 and 1970, statutes had been enacted at the federal, state and local levels, barring unequal treatment in voting, housing, health care, public accommodations, public facilities, education and employment. They established the right not to be discriminated against, and the corresponding duty not to discriminate, on account of "race, color or national origin." This right was not reserved for members of particular groups but was ascribed equally to every person in the United States.
For most Americans this legislation was an historic triumph of moral principle, essential to a democratic, multiracial society. But for blacks it could be seen as a two-edged sword, banning adverse discrimination to be sure, but also prohibiting any discrimination in their favor. The antidiscrimination statutes left blacks with two important disadvantages. They were still held back by deficiencies in ability, training and motivation attributable to past discrimination, and they could expect that discrimination against them in the future, though illegal, would often occur.
Any society, ending an era of oppressive racial discrimination, faces a dilemma. If everyone is granted the right not to be discriminated against on account of race, the possibility of helping the victims of past discrimination through racial preference is lost. But if members of a previously excluded group are favored on the basis of race, the right of everyone else not to suffer racial discrimination is denied.
The American response to this dilemma has been to retain the ban against racial discrimination in most areas of national life, but to grant preference in higher education and employment, where special assistance might be most helpful to a previously excluded racial group. However, the objections to this policy are grave.
1. Affirmative action as racial preference constitutes racial discrimination. Preference signifies unequal treatment, by which one person is favored over another. However, that is exactly what is meant by discrimination. Preference based on race is discrimination based on race. Racial preference discriminates, in favor of one applicant and against a competitor, because they belong to different racial groups.
2. It is often compulsory. Many firms are not allowed to follow impartial standards in the selection of their employees. Numerical goals for hiring "underutilized minorities" are set or demanded by government. In order to meet them, employers are often forced to discriminate in favor of these minorities, against applicants who are better qualified. The penalty for refusal may be the loss of government contracts, or lawsuits by government agencies or private parties.
In 1950, racial discrimination was mandated by law in about a third of our states (mostly in the Old Confederacy); the remaining states and the federal government neither required nor endorsed it. In 1995, under the rubric of affirmative action, the federal government mandates racial discrimination throughout the land.
3. It operates by lowering standards of selection. Affirmative action might have focussed on helping people increase their ability to meet regular standards. Instead, it lowers the standards, to accommodate inferior ability. A 1992 survey reports the mean combined-SAT scores for Freshmen at twenty-six leading private colleges. At the median school, blacks and Hispanics (admitted predominantly via preference) averaged 180 and 129 points, respectively, below the white mean; Asians were 30 above. The aptitude test scores of applicants for law and medical school show comparable gaps between the average black or Hispanic and the average white or Asian.
4. It has no clear criteria as to which groups should receive it. There has never been an authoritative statement - not from the President, the Supreme Court, or any federal agency charged with overseeing affirmative action - of the reasons why certain minorities are designated for preference, but not others. If a history of slavery or prolonged legal segregation is a necessary condition, why are Hispanics and Indians eligible? If it is sufficient that one's group has been subjected to substantial discrimination in this country, why are Irishmen, Poles and Italians not eligible? Why persons with a Spanish, but not those with a Portuguese surname? Why nationality groups from South America, but not from northern Africa or the Middle East? Why Asians sometimes, rather than always or never?
5. It is secretive and duplicitous. Educators and employers are glad to report the percentage of their students or employees who are white, black, Hispanic, Asian or Indian. However, the number of their applicants who benefit or suffer from racial preference is almost always a closely guarded secret. Proponents of affirmative action never call it preferential treatment or discrimination, and generally deny that anything of the sort is involved. Universities and corporations that practice racial preference, as well as governmental agencies that foster it, publicly declare that their policies do not discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin.
6. It does not reflect the will of the people and was not adopted by their representatives in Congress. During the three decades of affirmative action, public opinion polls have consistently reported an overwhelming majority against racial or ethnic preference in higher education and employment. In the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress forbade racial discrimination in public colleges, in private colleges receiving governmental aid, and in private businesses having more than twenty-five employees. This prohibition has never been repealed or revised. The programs of racial preference in these institutions were mandated, not by the legislature, but by administrators and judges.
No one denies the problem: many people need or deserve special help from educators, employers or government. But a policy with the objections we have described cannot be an acceptable solution. On the contrary, the objections and the principles they imply suggest a better way: -
The purpose of assistance: to help people, by special education or training, to meet regular standards of selection.
The education and training: conducted by existing schools and businesses where possible, and by additional schools where necessary.
The participation of educators and employers in the private sector: voluntary, contractual, never compulsory.
The principal cost: borne by government.
Eligibility for assistance: depends on specific criteria of disadvantage. In addition to poverty, the criteria might include having lived in a blighted neighborhood, attended incompetent public schools or suffered systematic racial discrimination.
Authorization for the program: from the legislative branch of government.
Any discrimination (unequal treatment) based on race or ethnicity in the rules or operation of the program would be banned. The antidiscrimination rule would be restored to its rightful authority over education and employment in general. It would be more strictly enforced, to make up for the unavailability of reverse discrimination as a preventive of unfair treatment to members of traditionally excluded groups. The use of a double standard in selection would be prima facie evidence of unequal treatment, but the use of a reasonable single standard would not, even when it resulted in a disproportionate rejection of applicants from one racial group, as compared with others.
Very difficult decisions would be necessary: under what auspices to provide the special education, how large the program should be, what criteria of eligibility would ensure that it reached the neediest and most promising individuals, and so on. But once adopted, the rules and policies of the program, as well as their ongoing implementation, must be honestly described and freely accessible to public scrutiny.
This alternative to racial preference has disadvantages, but none, I believe, that can compare with the evils of present policy.
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