Over the past several decades, the affirmative action debate has been a cyclical fixture of the American political discourse. Last year its supporters won a victory in the form of a Supreme Court ruling that stated it is constitutional for colleges to implement affirmative-action plans that take race into account. But that doesn’t mean it is safe from legal assault: Just last month, The New York Times reported that the Department of Justice would be investigating affirmative action admissions policies that allegedly discriminate against white applicants.

The policy’s detractors say that it allows less qualified minority applicants to get into universities at the expense of more qualified applicants. Its advocates typically argue that it is a way to increase diversity at universities so that campuses reflect the racial and ethnic plurality of the country we live in. They make the case that taking classes with and living alongside people of different races, faiths, nationalities, and ethnicities ultimately creates more culturally adept and empathic citizens.

The arguments about diversity are important, empirically supported by extensive social science, and should be taken into account. But they are, alone, insufficient. Until affirmative action is described and understood as one mechanism by which to make amends for historical wrongdoing against members of marginalized communities, it will fail to meaningfully address the inequality that exists as a direct result of federal policy.

In an effort to reconceptualize how affirmative action is popularly understood, we need to go back to a time when the government created programs that were specifically intended to help whites. In his book When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold Story of Racial Inequality, the Columbia historian and political scientist Ira Katznelson explores the way federal and state policy, tied to welfare, the labor market, and the social safety net that grew out of the Great Depression, either wholly excluded or had diminished value for black Americans in the 1930s and 1940s. As a result, blacks did not receive equal access to the social bedrocks that would create unprecedented social mobility and intergenerational wealth for many white Americans.

Current affirmative action policies can thus be understood as an important initiative, albeit still an inadequate one, by universities to make amends for decades-long wrongdoing. It can be seen as a kind of reparation.


Following the collapse of the global economy in 1929, the American agricultural industry stagnated. Agricultural workers across the country were entrenched in deepening poverty. This phenomenon disproportionately affected black southerners who represented the vast majority of the agricultural workforce in the South.


During this time segregation was legal in 17 states, and Southern Democrats were perfectly positioned to shape the federal New Deal policies. Through a series of insidious legislative moves, each piece of legislation worked to lift up the white middle class while further rooting black southerners in abject poverty.

In the 1930s more than 60 percent of the black labor force was either a farmworker or domestic worker—that number was near 75 percent for those who were employed in the South. People in those professions found themselves excluded until the 1950s from social programs that set the minimum wage, regulated hours of work, created labor unions, and produced Social Security. Additionally, because states and local governments were given jurisdiction over how to administer many New Deal programs—including those meant to support veterans and the poor—Southern politicians would arbitrarily deny access to black citizens.

And because Southern Democrats wielded disproportionate power in Congress—the 34 senators representing those 17 racially segregated states essentially had veto power on any legislation they didn’t want—the only way any of this legislation could pass was if Republicans agreed not to attach any anti-discrimination provisions. These programs included school lunches, community health services, and construction grants.

There is no way to understand these programs and their implementation other than a form of white affirmative action. The policies would go on to catalyze the white social mobility that shaped the racial wealth gap we see today. Southern Democrats didn’t have to use discriminatory language in the legislation for it to have its desired impact. By using race-neutral nomenclature, and by simply excluding the primary occupations in which black people worked, they were able to severely limit black social mobility while bolstering the economic opportunities of white Americans. Political Scientist Robert Lieberman refers to this phenomenon as “discrimination by design,” in which provisions of legislation have an explicit goal “to divide the population along racial lines without saying so in so many words.”

The impact of denying Social Security to the majority of black Americans was profound. Social Security had the potential to protect citizens from the economic vulnerability and physical peril of old age. This was at a time when more than half of black men, as compared to one third of white men, continued working beyond the age of 75. Katznelson refers to the first 25 years of Social Security’s existence as a form of “policy apartheid” that ran counter to the goals Franklin D. Roosevelt espoused for the New Deal. At the time, the NAACP referred to the bill as “a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through.”

Another New Deal initiative that arguably had an even greater impact on shaping the upward mobility of millions of Americans was the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act—more famously known as the GI Bill—which had the goal of reintegrating 16 million military veterans after the Second World War. It remains the most expansive set of social benefits ever extended by the federal government through a single program. The government spent over $95 billion between 1944 and 1971 on benefits for veterans, with the GI Bill at times making up to 15 percent of the federal budget.

Thanks to the bill, veterans coming home from war were able to attend college, start businesses, and purchase homes at rates unparalleled in American history. More than 200,000 veterans used the bill to access capital to start businesses and acquire land; the Veterans Administration mortgages paid for five million new homes for former military members and their families; interest rates associated with the GI Bill were capped at modest rates; and down payments were waived for loans of up to 30 years. By 1950 the federal government spent more on the education of veterans than on total expenditures in the Marshall Plan. The GI Bill is largely credited with creating the contemporary middle-class in the United States.

However, the primary crafter of the GI Bill was the Committee on World War Legislation in the House of Representatives. That committee was chaired by John Rankin of Mississippi, a notorious racist who sponsored legislation to keep Japanese and black blood transfusions from being given to whites, and who once remarked of American Jews, “They whine about discrimination. Do you know who is being discriminated against? The white Christian people of America, the ones who created this nation.”

He and other Southern Democrats meticulously designed the GI Bill to exist within the discriminatory framework of Jim Crow. And while it is true that some state and local authorities allowed black veterans to reap the benefits of the GI Bill, far more did not, and thus the education gap between blacks and whites did not close—it widened. This educational gap would exacerbate the economic chasms between the two groups. As Katznelson states, “There was no greater instrument for widening an already huge racial gap in the postwar America than the GI Bill.”


In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a speech at Howard University making the case that alleviating the social conditions of black Americans was a job for the federal government because the federal government had once stripped so many of black people’s rights and resources.

You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders as you please. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus is it not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.

Today, racial inequality has continued to stratify. Black-white wage gaps are larger today than they were 35 years ago. The average wages for a white college graduate is significantly higher ($31.83 per hour) than the average wage for a black college graduate ($25.77). Median white wealth ($134,000) is twelve times higher than median black wealth ($11,000).

To be clear, affirmative action is not, by itself, an adequate response to decades of systemic looting, but it has been an indispensible tool in inching us towards some semblance of a more equitable society. After Johnson signed an executive order in 1965 mandating that government contractors use affirmative action policies to bring in more minority employees, many colleges and universities began putting in place similar initiatives. The results of those policies are clear. In 1965 less than 5 percent of college students were black; by 1990 that number had exploded to 12 percent, mirroring the national population of black Americans. In the final three decades of the twentieth century, 15,000 black students graduated from the nation’s top 25 schools. Two-thirds of those students had been admitted through affirmative action policies. Ten thousand black students graduated from business school and another 3,500 graduated from medical school. The number of black lawyers and engineers tripled, and the amount of black doctors doubled.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts once remarked, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” But to operate with the aspiration of color-blindness in a country whose central operating mechanism for centuries has been race belies the logic of race-neutral public policy. Public policy must account for the historic and intentional pillaging of resources experienced by black Americans.

Advocates of affirmative action should not run away from fashioning their arguments for affirmative action along these lines. Advocating for affirmative action through the prism of diversity may be more politically palatable, but it will inevitably yield insufficient results. Katznelson reminds us that black Americans do not warrant affirmative action because they are black, but because they have been subjected to centuries of unjust, government-sanctioned policy that has had catastrophic consequences.