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Katznelson Symposium Delves into Troubled History of Affirmative Action Policy

According to leading African-American scholars at a recent Columbia symposium, the social inequities uncovered in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have delivered a wake-up call to the nation, which has yet to confront the legacy of its repeated failed attempts to deal with racial inequality.

The scholars were gathered for an afternoon-long discussion of Columbia historian Ira Katznelson's provocative new book, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, organized by Columbia's Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS) and moderated by IRAAS director Farah Jasmine Griffin. The discussion is scheduled to air on C-SPAN2 on Saturday, Oct. 22, at 11:30 a.m.

Citing limitations in all three branches of the American government, the panelists were not optimistic that a fair and meaningful distribution of assistance to the disaster victims could be achieved.

The Untold History of Racial Inequality

In his latest work, Katznelson argues that today's concepts of affirmative action find their roots not in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, as is commonly thought, but in the New Deal policies of the 1930s and 1940s. Black Americans would have made more progress today, he claims, had they been able to benefit from New and Fair Deal legislation. Instead, the Democratic leadership succumbed to pressure from powerful Southern Democrats, who insisted upon making provisions to the laws that would allow them to preserve racial segregation in the South, where most blacks lived.

When social security legislation was enacted in 1935, for example, farm-workers and domestics, the two most common occupations for blacks at the time, were ineligible.

The scenario repeated itself with the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, the benefits of which applied to factory workers, who were largely white.

But the most compelling example Katznelson cites is the GI Bill, which did more than any other program in the 20th century to create a large American middle class by providing opportunities for education and homeownership to the 16 million soldiers after World War II. Katznelson writes that "there was no greater instrument for widening an already huge racial gap in postwar American than the GI Bill." This was because Southern lawmakers had insisted upon the benefits being administered at a local level.

Katznelson concludes with the plea for the Supreme Court to embrace a set of new, more far-reaching New Deal-type programs on the grounds that thus far, such policies have benefited mainly whites.

The Advantage of an Historical Approach

In remarks delivered at the start of the symposium, Marcellus Blount, associate professor of African-American literary and cultural studies at Columbia, applauded Katznelson for showing how affirmative action has failed to dislodge policies of racial inequality that were already deeply embedded in America's political system. "We are involved in the past at the present moment," he noted.

Thomas Sugrue, a University of Pennsylvania historian who specializes in race relations, said that he appreciated Katznelson's point that racial bias had informed the implementation of New Deal legislation. "When Affirmative Action Was White describes the powerful vision of a robust notion of entitlement and citizenship" that was primarily for the benefit of poor whites, he stated.

IRAAS founder Manning Marable praised Katznelson's book as "how political history should be written." The "treacherous history" of equal access and full opportunity must be understood before it can be transcended, he said.

Relevance for Current Policy

Sugrue was pessimistic that the present Supreme Court would rule in favor of Katznelson's affirmative action recommendations as the court relies on an historical view of evidence of discrimination. Setbacks like 1996's California proposition 209, which prohibits any consideration of race in activities carried out by the state government, have made it possible for the history of the struggle to be "erased from national memory," he said.

Sudhir Venkatesh, director of research at IRAAS, argued that as the law is a demystified form of state capitalism, it will always favor the "artificially constructed mainstream" that asks: "Why can't urban poor blacks act more like us?"

Jennifer Hochschild, a Harvard professor of African and African-American studies, posed basic questions about the programs that would grow from the findings of Katznelson's book: what were they, how would the recipients be chosen, and how exactly would these programs be carried out? If, as the book contends, two-party competition led to the problems that Katznelson describes, then how do we get to a solution?

Leading public intellectual Cornel West, now a professor of African-American studies and religion at Princeton, suggested that every policy has three phases: vision, codification and execution. Katznelson's book, he noted, supports the idea that affirmative action has reached its third phase, where it needs to target white supremacy before it can be fully implemented.

Implications for Katrina Relief Measures

Most of the symposium participants concurred with West's observation that the Gulf Coast disaster had been a "social rendering." Venkatesh pointed out that there were "enormous limits" to providing the necessary social remedies to hurricane victims. Housing mobility vouchers, for example, are premised in legal concepts based on the rights of individual householders. As the African-American world tends to consist of social networks and extended families, many of the victims are unlikely to qualify for state assistance, he said.

The author himself, however, was more optimistic. In his closing remarks, Ira Katznelson told of his pediatrician-daughter's volunteer efforts on the Gulf Coast. Describing how people from "utterly different worlds" came together, she said that their collaboration was "changing politics on the ground."

Katznelson concluded by reiterating that "we all share responsibility to imagine possibilities that guide us to a better place." He went on to thank the symposium participants for rising to the challenge posed by his book, to "imagine and craft policies that act as corrective justice."

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Published: Oct 21, 2005
Last modified: Oct 21, 2005

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