A Long History of Racial Preferences
- For Whites
Many middle-class white people, especially those of us who grew
up in the suburbs, like to think that we got to where we are today
by virtue of our merit - hard work, intelligence, pluck, and maybe
a little luck. And while we may be sympathetic to the plight of
others, we close down when we hear the words "affirmative action"
or "racial preferences." We worked hard, we made it on our own,
the thinking goes, why don't 'they'? After all, it's been almost
40 years now since the Civil Rights Act was passed.
What we don't readily acknowledge
is that racial preferences have a long, institutional history
in this country - a white history. Here are a few ways in which
government programs and practices have channeled wealth and opportunities
to white people at the expense of others.
Early Racial Preferences
We all know the old history, but it's still worth
reminding ourselves of its scale and scope. Affirmative action
in the American "workplace" first began in the late 17th century
when European indentured servants - the original source of unfree
labor on the new tobacco plantations of Virginia and Maryland
- were replaced by African slaves. In exchange for their support
and their policing of the growing slave population, lower-class
Europeans won new rights, entitlements, and opportunities from
the planter elite.
White Americans were also given a head
start with the help of the U.S. Army. The 1830 Indian Removal
Act, for example, forcibly relocated Cherokee, Creeks and other
eastern Indians to west of the Mississippi River to make room
for white settlers. The 1862 Homestead Act followed suit, giving
away millions of acres - for free - of what had been Indian Territory
west of the Mississippi. Ultimately, 270 million acres, or 10%
of the total land area of the United States, was converted to
private hands, overwhelmingly white, under Homestead Act provisions.
1790 Naturalization Act permitted only "free white persons" to
become naturalized citizens, thus opening the doors to European
immigrants but not others. Only citizens could vote, serve on
juries, hold office, and in some cases, even hold property. In
this century, Alien Land Laws passed in California and other states,
reserved farm land for white growers by preventing Asian immigrants,
ineligible to become citizens, from owning or leasing land. Immigration
restrictions further limited opportunities for nonwhite groups.
Racial barriers to naturalized U.S. citizenship weren't removed
until the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952, and white racial preferences
in immigration remained until 1965.
In the South, the federal
government never followed through on General Sherman's Civil War
plan to divide up plantations and give each freed slave "40 acres
and a mule" as reparations. Only once was monetary compensation
made for slavery, in Washington, D.C. There, government officials
paid up to $300 per slave upon emancipation - not to the slaves,
but to local slaveholders as compensation for loss of property.
When slavery ended, its legacy lived on not only in the
impoverished condition of Black people but in the wealth and prosperity
that accrued to white slaveowners and their descendents. Economists
who try to place a dollar value on how much white Americans have
profited from 200 years of unpaid slave labor, including interest,
begin their estimates at $1 trillion.
Jim Crow laws, instituted
in the late 19th and early 20th century and not overturned in
many states until the 1960s, reserved the best jobs, neighborhoods,
schools and hospitals for white people.
The Advantages Grow, Generation to Generation
Less known are more recent
government racial preferences, first enacted during the New Deal,
that directed wealth to white families and continue to shape life
opportunities and chances today.
The landmark Social Security
Act of 1935 provided a safety net for millions of workers, guaranteeing
them an income after retirement. But the act specifically excluded
two occupations: agricultural workers and domestic servants, who
were predominately African American, Mexican, and Asian. As low-income
workers, they also had the least opportunity to save for their
retirement. They couldn't pass wealth on to their children. Just
the opposite. Their children had to support them.
Security, the 1935 Wagner Act helped establish an important new
right for white people. By granting unions the power of collective
bargaining, it helped millions of white workers gain entry into
the middle class over the next 30 years. But the Wagner Act permitted
unions to exclude non-whites and deny them access to better paid
jobs and union protections and benefits such as health care, job
security, and pensions. Many craft unions remained nearly all-white
well into the 1970s. In 1972, for example, every single one of
the 3,000 members of Los Angeles Steam Fitters Local #250 was
But it was another racialized New Deal program,
the Federal Housing Administration, that helped generate much
of the wealth that so many white families enjoy today. These revolutionary
programs made it possible for millions of average white Americans
- but not others - to own a home for the first time. The government
set up a national neighborhood appraisal system, explicitly tying
mortgage eligibility to race. Integrated communities were ipso
facto deemed a financial risk and made ineligible for home loans,
a policy known today as "redlining." Between 1934 and 1962, the
federal government backed $120 billion of home loans. More than
98% went to whites. Of the 350,000 new homes built with federal
support in northern California between 1946 and 1960, fewer than
100 went to African Americans.
These government programs
made possible the new segregated white suburbs that sprang up
around the country after World War II. Government subsidies for
municipal services helped develop and enhance these suburbs further,
in turn fueling commercial investments. Freeways tied the new
suburbs to central business districts, but they often cut through
and destroyed the vitality of non-white neighborhoods in the central
Today, Black and Latino mortgage applicants are still
60% more likely than whites to be turned down for a loan, even
after controlling for employment, financial, and neighborhood
factors. According to the Census, whites are more likely to be
segregated than any other group. As recently as 1993, 86% of suburban
whites still lived in neighborhoods with a black population of
less than 1%.
Reaping the Rewards of Racial Preference
result of the generations of preferential treatment for whites
is that a typical white family today has on average eight times
the assets, or net worth, of a typical African American family,
according to New York University economist Edward Wolff. Even
when families of the same income are compared, white families
have more than twice the wealth of Black families. Much of that
wealth difference can be attributed to the value of one's home,
and how much one inherited from parents.
But a family's
net worth is not simply the finish line, it's also the starting
point for the next generation. Those with wealth pass their assets
on to their children - by financing a college education, lending
a hand during hard times, or assisting with the down payment for
a home. Some economists estimate that up to 80 percent of lifetime
wealth accumulation depends on these intergenerational transfers.
White advantage is passed down, from parent to child to grand-child.
As a result, the racial wealth gap - and the head start enjoyed
by whites - appears to have grown since the civil rights days.
In 1865, just after Emancipation, it is not surprising that
African Americans owned only 0.5 percent of the total worth of
the United States. But by 1990, a full 135 years after the abolition
of slavery, Black Americans still possessed only a meager 1 percent
of national wealth. As legal scholar john powell (sic) says in
the documentary series Race - The Power of an Illusion, "The slick
thing about whiteness is that whites are getting the spoils of
a racist system even if they are not personally racist."
rather than recognize how "racial preferences" have tilted the
playing field and given us a head start in life, many whites continue
to believe that race does not affect our lives. Instead, we chastise
others for not achieving what we have; we even invert the situation
and accuse non-whites of using "the race card" to advance themselves.
Or we suggest that differential outcomes may simply result
from differences in "natural" ability or motivation. However,
sociologist Dalton Conley's research shows that when we compare
the performance of families across racial lines who make not just
the same income, but also hold similar net worth, a very interesting
thing happens: many of the racial disparities in education, graduation
rates, welfare usage and other outcomes disappear. The "performance
gap" between whites and nonwhites is a product not of nature,
but unequal circumstances.
"Colorblind" policies that treat
everyone the same, no exceptions for minorities, are often counter-posed
against affirmative action. But colorblindness today merely bolsters
the unfair advantages that color-coded practices have enabled
white Americans to long accumulate.
Isn't it a little late
in the game to suddenly decide that race shouldn't matter?
Larry Adelman is executive producer of RACE - The Power of
an Illusion and co-director of California Newsreel.