Affirmative Action: The Last Stand

Affirmative Action: The Last Stand

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

When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America
by Ira Katznelson
Norton, 2005, 238 pp., $25.95

For almost forty years, affirmative action programs have played an indispensable role in creating a larger, wealthier, and more varied black middle class than any that had previously existed in the United States. They have also encouraged the advance of blacks, nonblack minorities, and women in a broad array of major public and private institutions. Some of these advances have been stunning—and unimaginable from the perspective of the racial order that dominated America as recently as half a century ago. The University of Maryland (my employer), an institution that once deemed Thurgood Marshall unfit for its law school, now confers more advanced degrees on African Americans than any other public institution in the country. At every educational level, black women earn more on average than their white female counterparts. In many professions, the numbers of African Americans have risen substantially. Some of this progress undoubtedly resulted directly from the Brown v. Board decision of 1954 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964; but other parts reflect the intensity and efficacy of affirmative action efforts first launched in the late 1960s and early 1970s and then integrated into the core ambitions of major institutions and key economic sectors—higher education, the corporate world, the military, and civilian government.

Nevertheless, opposition to affirmative action has always been strong and has recently gathered additional force. Part of that opposition is cultural and constitutional. Americans like to think of themselves as a nation of strivers and to regard economic success as a product purely of an individual’s talents, dedication, and merit. Those who adhere to such views accuse affirmative action policies of granting individuals opportunity and advancement because of the group to which they belong rather than because of their actual qualifications or achievements. This view has found sanction among Supreme Court justices, a majority of whom, over the last twenty-five years, have held that many forms of affirmative action do in fact elevate group rights over individual rights and thus violate the “equal protection” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Others question affirmative action because of its perceived inability to address questions of class inequality. Even if one grants that white skin has conferred economic, social, and political advantages on those who possess it, it is equally true that those advantages have never been equally distributed among whites. White America has always possessed an internal class structure, and it has widened during the affirmative action era, as the income of the wealthy has soared while the minimum wage i...

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