Affirmative action in US politics

For two and a half centuries America enslaved its black population, whose labour was a critical source of the country’s capitalist modernisation and prosperity. Upon the abolition of legal, interpersonal slavery, the exploitation and degradation of blacks continued in the neo-slavery system of Jim Crow, a domestic terrorist regime fully sanctioned by the state and courts of the nation, and including Nazi-like instruments of ritualised human slaughter. Black harms and losses accrued to all whites, both to those directly exploiting them, and indirectly to all enjoying the enhanced prosperity their social exclusion and depressed earnings made possible. When white affirmative action was first developed on a large scale in the New Deal welfare and social programmes, and later in the huge state subsidisation of suburban housing — a major source of present white wealth — blacks were systematically excluded, to the benefit of the millions of whites whose entitlements would have been less, or whose housing slots would have been given to blacks in any fairly administered system.

It is this inherited pattern of racial injustice, and its persisting inequities, that the American state and corporate system began to tackle, in a sustained manner, in the middle of the last century. The ambitious aim of Melvin I Urofsky’s book is a comprehensive account of the non-white version of affirmative action. This is a complex and challenging historical task, given that “no other issue divides Americans more.” Mr Urofsky explores nearly all aspects of the program — its legal, educational, economic, electoral and gender dimensions, from its untitled beginnings during Reconstruction to the present. The one major missing part of the puzzle in his otherwise thorough account is the military, which is unfortunate since, as the military sociologist Charles Moskos pointed out, “nowhere else in American society has racial integration gone as far or has black achievement been so pronounced.”

Mr Urofsky claims not to make the case for or against affirmative action but admits to being “conflicted” on the matter. He distinguishes between what he calls soft and hard affirmative action, the first aimed at removing barriers only, the second attempting positive action that results in the observable betterment of the excluded group. He repeatedly says that he favours soft affirmative action. But, to his credit, the “facts on the ground” that he assiduously marshals indicate that merely providing equal opportunity does not work, for reasons eloquently spelled out by President Lyndon Johnson in his celebrated 1965 commencement address at Howard University: “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”

Mr Urofsky reveals that many presidents, administrators and activists, while proclaiming soft affirmative action, have struggled to make it work. Some, like John F Kennedy, and especially Johnson, as well as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, have publicly voiced their support for colourblind, anti-quota, equal opportunity only, and individualistic rather than group-based approaches, while quietly allowing their administrators to craft pragmatic programmes that did just the opposite, to the benefit of the disadvantaged. Some, like Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush, have openly attempted to abolish the programme but failed. Richard Nixon (who else?) made it the centrepiece of arguably the most Machiavellian strategy in modern American political history: His Philadelphia Plan, with its blatant minority business set-asides and insistence on craft unions’ acceptance of blacks, was the most extreme hard version of the programme ever undertaken, resulting in major improvements for blacks at all levels of the economy, to the applause of nearly every black leader. But it was a key element in his notorious Southern strategy, successfully shattering the traditional bond between white working-class union members and the Democratic Party, and paving the way for the Reagan Democrats and the modern Republican ascendancy.

It is in academia that affirmative action battles have been most ferociously fought, and Mr Urofsky devotes two chapters to this. The first focuses on the turmoil of the seventies, especially the City University of New York’s botched open enrolment programme and the problem of minority faculty recruitment; the second deals with the current situation, and the shift from compensation to diversity as affirmative action’s main justification.

The book deserves a better closing chapter. Mr Urofsky claims that no coherent picture emerges from his painstaking study. To the question of whether disadvantaged minorities have benefited from the program, he answers, “Yes … and No.” It is questionable, however, whether affirmative action could have solved all or even most of the problems of blacks, women and other disadvantaged groups. The remarkable thing is that affirmative action is now an integral part of the moral, cultural, military, political and economic fabric of the nation. Its businesses, educational system and political directorate have largely embraced it and the court undoes it at the cost of its own legitimacy. The great merit of this meticulously researched, honestly crafted work is that it allows readers to draw their own conclusions. American experiment, quite independent of the author’s own conflicted views about it.

THE AFFIRMATIVE ACTION PUZZLE: A Living History From Reconstruction to Today

Author: Melvin I Urofsky

Publisher: Pantheon Books

Price: $35

Pages: 570

© 2020 The New York Times News Service

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