when affirmative action was white

In terms of education, I’ve had the experience of living in a civilized country. I didn’t really pay for college, from community college through PhD. Mostly this was due to sources of money called Diversity Something Something. Since those sources of money depend on “merit” AND something else, some might question whether the financial support is “deserved,” especially if they lack funding themselves. If you then make some kind of mistake, you can safely assume the question has occurred to someone, even if it’s all unspoken. Sometimes it’s spoken, like when the scholarship people themselves sent me a letter about a special minorities-only tutoring center, for all the extra help I didn’t need as a black person.

It’s uncomfortable, because the idea that rewards should follow from performance is fundamentally sound. I was only indirectly affected by Jim Crow, and my actual performance is fine by the same standards applied to white people, so…You hear about how people admitted due to affirmative action tend to need more remedial classes and graduate at lower rates. Was I confirming the stereotypes and failing my race because I didn’t publish anything in grad school?

When Affirmative Action Was White is about exactly what the title says.

Basically, there’s a middle class because the government decided there would be one. The New Deal and the GI Bill created it. Labor unions fought for things. Today, the existence of the middle class isn’t a priority for the government, so it’s going extinct. “Middle class” is more useful when it’s vaguely defined and everybody of all classes identifies with it. The key point is that the New Deal and the GI Bill were deliberately designed to exclude black people. Some black people were helped by those programs, but disproportionately more whites were helped, and they received better help.

The way things are usually framed, it’s been a long time and white people have gotten a lot nicer, so it’s time for black people to get their shit together and blah blah blah. This is the essential problem:


It’s like white people are begrudging others the same help that they received.

The bills didn’t directly say “we will not help black people,” but they were written by Southern Democrats in a way that achieved the same thing. They made farm workers and maids ineligible for certain benefits, when those were disproportionately black professions. Southern legislators ensured that, while the language was colorblind, the administration of the programs was left to the states and localities. The locals could just turn black people away, or leave them with crappier facilities, fewer resources, etc. The GI Bill helped a lot of soldiers, but literacy tests were used to keep black people from joining the military in the first place. At the time, illiteracy was also common among poor whites, but that wasn’t an obstacle to enlistment.

White people could then pretend this wasn’t happening, see fewer black people rise up from poverty themselves, and blame them for it. To re-emphasize: it was the official policy of the US government to improve living conditions for white people more than black people, for a long time.. There’s a great quote to the effect that it’s curious that white people, having used racial categories to oppress black people for so long, now object to using racial categories to address that very same oppression. Then, grotesquely, the actually racist people get to act like they’re taking a principled stand, despite misgivings, of course. What will we ever do about the intractable cultural problems in the black community?

I think the “principled” objections would be correct if they went further. It’s exactly right that I’m not some special person divinely entitled to more help than others. Education has enriched my life so much that I wish everyone could have as much education as they want, for free. It would be colorblind to say that everyone should get a halfway decent standard of living and educational opportunities as a basic human right, and ensure everyone has those things. It concedes a lot from the start to grant that basic things should be unaffordable without subsidies, and then argue about how to allocate the scraps. College used to be free or the type of thing people paid for with part-time jobs. It was before I was born, but the country really did have those things. Collectively, we could decide to arrange things that way again. It’s empirically possible, but in these troubled times it means that government favors to at least some currently powerful people would have to end.

I vote for people that aren’t Democrats or Republicans, but I can’t force other people to vote for their own interests with me. Using the same ballot as everyone else, I’ve followed the exact procedure the system sets out for me to register my opinion about how the world should be. As far as the system permits, I’ve voted for everyone to have all the benefits I’ve had in my life, and more!