An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America

By Ira Katznelson

Norton. 238 pp. $25.95

Ira Katznelson begins this study of how Southern Democrats warped New Deal legislation to deny blacks its benefits with a look back to President Lyndon B. Johnson's notable speech "To Fulfill These Rights." Delivered four decades ago as a commencement address at Howard University, at the height of Johnson's effectiveness as civil rights president, the speech was "the first moment when a president from any region forcefully and visibly sponsored affirmative action for blacks."

This was not affirmative action as the term is now commonly understood but a declaration that, as Johnson put it, "we seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result."

As Katznelson correctly notes, the policies Johnson outlined that June 1965 day "would not target the black middle-class audience he was addressing, but 'the poor, the unemployed, the uprooted, and the dispossessed.' " That never really happened. Katznelson writes:

"If Lyndon Johnson were speaking today . . . he would still have to talk about black isolation. He would remark on large differences in income and wealth; oppressive levels of unemployment; high victimization, crime, and incarceration; much lower rates for school completion and marriage; and vast, often debilitating hardship for black children. Although the gap in education and earnings between whites and blacks has steadily closed for the top third of African Americans, the median income of the great majority of blacks lags behind that of whites by about one third; and the figures for family wealth are even more unequal, not only in homeownership but in other assets such as stock holdings, savings accounts, and retirement funds. This gap in net worth grew substantially in the 1990s with the run-up in the value of real estate and stocks. The old advantages and disadvantages have continued to compound."

What we now know as affirmative action has primarily, if not exclusively, benefited the black middle and upper-middle classes. Government at all levels, private business and industry, higher education -- all have sought for various reasons to "diversify" and have done so by actively seeking out and hiring educated African Americans. The military has reached further down the socioeconomic ladder and has benefited many poor blacks, but their numbers are relatively small and they may bear a disproportionate burden of military action and its costs because the all-volunteer armed services must draw on the poorer end of the workforce in order to meet their manpower needs.

This is not -- or certainly does not seem to be -- what Johnson had in mind. Katznelson, a Columbia University political scientist and historian, believes he was talking about what Aristotle called "corrective justice," under which "public policy is used to compensate members of a deprived group for prior losses and for gains unfairly achieved by others that resulted from prior governmental action." It is here that we reach the core of Katznelson's argument. As he shows in considerable but not stifling detail, during the New Deal years the Democratic congressional bloc from the South acted just about en masse "to dictate the contours of Social Security, key labor legislation, the GI Bill, and other landmark laws that helped create a modern white middle class in a manner that also protected what these legislators routinely called 'the southern way of life.' " This is how they did it:

"They used three mechanisms. First, whenever the nature of the legislation permitted, they sought to leave out as many African Americans as they could. . . . Second, they successfully insisted that the administration of these and other laws, including assistance to the poor and support for veterans, be placed in the hands of local officials who were deeply hostile to black aspirations. . . . Third, they prevented Congress from attaching any sort of anti-discrimination provisions to a wide array of social welfare programs such as community health services, schools lunches, and hospital construction grants. . . . As a consequence, at the very moment when a wide array of public policies was providing most white Americans with valuable tools to advance their social welfare -- insure their old age, get good jobs, acquire economic security, build assets, and gain middle-class status -- most black Americans were left behind or left out."

This is true. But it is not true, as Katznelson insists then and thereafter, that "affirmative action then was white." He writes that "federal social welfare policy operated . . . as a perverse formula for affirmative action," that the GI Bill acted as "affirmative action for whites," that "all the major tools the federal government deployed during the New Deal and the Fair Deal created a powerful, if unstated, program of affirmative action for white Americans." Et cetera. But this completely ignores the essential point that Katznelson himself makes elsewhere: The goal of Southern Democrats was to deny the benefits of these programs to blacks, not to create an "affirmative action" program for whites.

Katznelson, who in most other respects is scrupulous and fair-minded, in this instance has fallen into the clutches of what some of his fellow historians call "presentism" -- judging the past by the standards of the present. "Affirmative action," as we understand the term, did not exist in the 1930s and 1940s, and the Southern Democrats -- bigoted and mean-spirited and self-interested though they most certainly were -- did not intend to single out whites for special treatment in the way affirmative action now singles out African Americans and other minorities. They wanted, pure and simple, to keep blacks in their place, to maintain a feudal labor system that bordered on slavery, "not just to impede but veto the full and fair participation of African Americans in the most important welfare-oriented advances of the 1930s."

The congressional Southerners weren't affirming anything; they were denying blacks -- Southern blacks most specifically -- the benefits of federal programs that, had those benefits been extended to them, might have helped them overcome generations of discrimination and move into the American mainstream. The language of late-20th-century diversity engineering is irrelevant to what they were doing, and to cast it in that language is to distort it beyond recognition.

As a work of history, "When Affirmative Action Was White" is useful, albeit not quite so pioneering as Katznelson and his publisher would have us believe; what the Southern bloc did in the 1930s and 1940s has been known ever since it happened and is well documented, though Katznelson appears to be the first to shape it into a coherent work of history. He may well also be right that the historical record of injustice done to blacks in that time supplies a legitimate basis on which to provide "corrective justice" to those who indisputably suffered as a consequence. But the story Katznelson tells isn't about affirmative action in any way, shape or form. It's about bigotry, political opportunism and the misuse of power. That's more than enough of a story to tell without trying to represent it as what it transparently is not.