NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 8, 2005

The monumental social programs created in the 1930s and 1940s not only discriminated against blacks, but actually contributed to widening the gap between white and black Americans, asserts Ira Katznelson in his new book, "When Affirmative Action Was White."

Katznelson, professor of political science and history at Columbia University, examines how the federal government discriminated against black citizens as it created and administered sweeping social programs like Social Security, unemployment compensation, minimum wage, protection of the rights of workers to join labor unions and the G.I. Bill of Rights. Even though blacks benefited to a degree from many of these programs, he shows how and why they received far less assistance than whites did.

Katznelson reserves his harshest criticism for the unfair application of the G.I. Bill of Rights, a series of programs that poured $95 billion into expanding opportunity for soldiers returning from World War II. Consider the statistics on disparate treatment:

  • By October 1946, 6,500 former soldiers had been placed in nonfarm jobs in Mississippi; 86 percent of the skilled and semiskilled jobs were filled by whites, 92 percent of the unskilled ones by blacks.
  • In New York and northern New Jersey, fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill supported home purchases by nonwhites.
  • The University of Pennsylvania, along with Columbia, the least discriminatory of Ivy League colleges, enrolled only 46 black students in its student body of 9,000 in 1946; while white universities doubled their enrollments, the traditional black colleges did not have places for an estimated 70,000 black veterans in 1947.

Throughout his book, Katznelson contends that policy makers and the judiciary previously failed to consider just how unfairly blacks had been treated, and he seeks to provide a broader historical justification for continuing affirmative action programs.

Source: Nick Kotz, "Uncivil Rights," New York Times Book Review, August 28, 2005; based upon: Ira Katznelson, "When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold Story of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America," W.W. Norton & Company, August 2005.

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