A Long History of Affirmative Action - For Whites

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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 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 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.

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 provisions.

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.

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 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 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 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 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.

Copyright (c) California Newsreel, 2003


I enjoyed the post, and have certainly read others of the same vein in this forum.  I'm pretty sure nobody's going to get their 40 acres, that's a motherload of land, these days; so what would be a viable solution to reparations that are still very deserved and needed.  It's sad to think that "white" privileges will be handed down till kingdom come and nobody will ever stand on even ground.  How can we integrate "white" privileges with peoples' disadvantages?  It's obvious to most people that this problem exists, how can we change it?    

We can organize African people to liberate ourselves. Without a strong homeland we have no strength anywhere. With Africa we have a land base...who needs 40 acres of stolen land anyway? Capitalism must be destroyed or everyone will continue to be exploited for our labour and the oppressed will countinue to be exploited moreso than others. Organization is the key, without it we are doomed.

Although I don't think reparations will be paid by this capitalsit vampire system as long as it exists, I do support the reparations movement because it is a just cause...(it is against capitalism's nature, explotation is the way profit is achieved, so paying reparations at this point would open a pandoras box...the entire wealth of Europe and America was developped by slavery and colonialism...even the industrial revolution and the stock market were invented and fueled because of "foregn investments"/colonization and chattel slavery plantation society...everything would have to be returned or 'given' back...and the system would have to stop further exploitations...which stops profit...and we all know that's not going to happen until it is destroyed.)

You might want to search Google for N'COBRA(National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America)...The reparations movement is very sophisticated(they can answer your question of what besides 40 acres and a mule can we demand as payment...such as things like community development projects and funding) and they could use your help.  I know some very dedicated brothers and sisters in that organization and the reparations movement in general...If they would only become Pan-Africanists...

     I read through all of NCOBRA's website, trying to find something that would in my mind be a real solution to reparations, or rather the lack thereof.  They focused on the usual things, monitary compensation, land compensation, but also identified the fact that through these reparations there will still be anymosity from "whitey," due to the loss of some of their privileges.   Reparations seems to be synonimous with apology, and saying "we're sorry," is not at all the apology that's going to cut it, there has to be a physical apology as well.  For caucasian people to come to this realization, to manifest a concrete apology, something has to change in the mindset of the majority.  There has to be a unified admittance to "white privileges."  What will bring about the realization of "white privileges," in the minds of caucasian people who were born into their privileges and have spent their whole lives taking these privileges for granted?
     NCOBRA has suggested that one form of reparations could take place through education.  NCOBRA did not outline their method for education concerning reparations.  I've been mulling over what a proper education of slavery and the need for reparations would entail.  This education would not be the one I received in school but rather a much more horrific education in which children would be subjected to a graphic look at exactly how Africans were treated throughout the past one and a half centuries.  As I remember the education I received in health class regarding std's, I remember being subjected to photos of infected persons that were so horrifying I knew I would be having safe sex to prevent that mess.  If "white" youth were subjected to very real examples of what Africans have suffered through at the hands of "white" people, would a mindframe set in that would exceed the verbal apology and manifest itself in "whites" truly feeling the need to create a concrete apology, to wash away this mess that we're currently living in?   As soon as I typed reparations into the search engine I was bombarded with all sorts of horrifying images that would, in my mind, constitute enough reason for "white" people to do some serious re-evalutions of their standard of living, and how that standard was ultimately acheived.  I think that reparations needs to start with better education of "white" youth, because unfortunately it has been my experience that "white" adults are too far gone to grasp the reality here.  My education regarding slavery led me to believe,for a little while,  that most suffering has ended and now we can all happily move on, but real history says the opposite.  I'm not sure that African Americans will be granted reparations by demanding them on their own.  I think African Americans are going to have to educate "white" people and get them to realize that a concrete apology is something they want to make, because it's something they could finally feel good about.    

Ras Mandingo:
Give thanks for this post Ayinde,

In brazil people say that the abolish of slavery where, in fact, the liberation of the landowners from the slaves. As slavery was not economically viable anymore, they just then "dismissed" the "slaves". And the reparations' arguements where all in relation to reparing the landowners from the money lost in the lost slaves.

There was not a single action trying to preserve a space for "minorities" in the country's national developemnt.

Now that people are talking about afirmative action, the reactions shown in the article, repeat themselves.

There is a serious "problem" going on right now in teh country, and it's related to the acumulated matter that the leaders never wanted to face.

The "favelas" started to exist in the end of monarchist government in Brazil. They used to be in the center of the cities, but as the city centers started to develop, and particularlly when the portuguese royal family came to brazil, running from the danger of the napoleonic hurricane in Europe. Now they wanted to hide the blacks and their favelas in the suburbs.

There was never action to repare the racist image of blacks that they used to justify slavery...and so the africans in Brazil were excluded from any project of the nation that they built to the portugueses.

Coming to our days, people now are discussing what are the solutions for the end of "narcotrafic" (in their view that's the problem) in the favelas (again the point is not reparing black people, but to destroy, to end the problem of drugs in the favelas).

As in the old times, when there was not even the possibility of going back to africa, now the problem in tha favelas that came to life in the "abolish" of slavery, politicians say that the problem in the favelas is a police case (and not a social, economic one) and some people seems to suggest some kind of genocide by the police in the favelas.

There were people saying that the solution would be to end the drug users (how? another genocide?) and there were some more other peopel saying that the solution is legalization of drugs (mind you, the users are mostly middle class people from the rich parts of the city) but this can only happen is the US does the same and say that is ok to do so. They say Brazil can't face something like this alone and get excluded from international affairs.

Again, they fail to realize that even if they do legaliza the "drugs", this will not solve the black people's problem (but their ones) and that violenc and crimes will find other vehicles to get perpetuated.

Now there are peoplem saying that lot's of people from Angola, that runned from the civil war that took place there until 2002, went to Rio de Janeiro, got together with the traffic gangs and tought them guerrilla techniques (police officers found mines and munition exlcusive to the country' armies and they are joining forces now.

And I'm not mentioning the problems with the indians, that now people are discussing if they can be arrested or not (as in brazilian laws they are like kids who can't answer for themselves). In Rondonia, people found diamonds in the indians reserve and not people are been killed by them when they enter in their lands looking for the diamonds. The midia says that the indians are selling the diamonds to people who land by planes in their lands, and that they have, so, an income of 25 thousand dollars anually per person, and the rest you can imagine. Indians say they have the right to defende themselves.

Some people are starting to say that until the land problems in brazil are not solved with the proper division of them and that until the "problem" of poor people is not solved, teh country will go nowhere.

Now, they are tending to use the word "poor people" and not africans or indians... meaning that they are all part of the same problem.

How do ones see that?

Please share.

In solidarity,



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