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  • Writer's pictureJeff James

white affirmative action

Maintaining white preferences and privileges through power, observed through the lens of a scarcity mindset, has always been economically beneficial to those considered white and extremely costly to those deemed not white. It is estimated that over $13 trillion in wealth, measured in today’s dollar value, was transferred from enslaved Africans to their owners in the form of “free” labor. Many more billions, perhaps trillions, of economic value was stolen post-1865 through the mid-20th century via the practice of re-enslaving black people via the criminal justice system. Local law enforcement would arrest newly freed enslaved people on nuisance laws such as vagrancy (if you did not have written permission to leave a job from your employer in the South, you could be arrested for vagrancy) and then re-selling their labor to local plantations and manufacturers. The revenue obviously landed in the hands of the law enforcement and prison officials, not the prisoners.

“White affirmative action”, a term first coined by Columbia University historian Ira Katznelson, often elicits confused looks when explained for the first time. Government investment controlled by white politicians and bureaucrats has historically been a hard power strategy for enshrining advantages for white people. Affirmative action is now understood by most as a targeted privilege designed to elevate people of color who have been systematically discriminated against. It’s essentially a tool for seeking to establish equity, especially in the case of an employer proven to have systematically denied jobs to black people. Some universities have applied the strategy to increase the percentage of students of color, either for equity purposes or for improving the learning environment by creating a diverse student body.

However, most white folks I’ve spoken with on the issue are completely unaware that for generations it was white Americans who benefitted directly from trillions of dollars of targeted investments to lift their European-American ancestors out of poverty and into the middle class; investments that people of color, especially black Americans, were systematically denied. These investments in white economic advancement included the Homestead Act of 1862, which literally gave 160 acres of land to any family who promised to “improve” it. Contrast this massive land giveaway to the denial to former African slaves who were promised just 40 acres and a mule, a promise made by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman that was swiftly annulled by President Andrew Johnson.

Other investments in white advancement such as the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill, have pumped billions into the academic and social growth of (white) veterans. These programs were spectacularly successful in creating a more educated workforce and even helped many GI’s buy their first homes, including my father. I and millions of others in the white middle-to-upper middle class are direct products of white affirmative action, although many don’t realize it.

These programs were also credited with creating dramatic economic and educational gaps between black and white Americans since the vast majority of African American veterans, especially from the 1940s through 1960s, were systematically denied access to these benefits. All told, the current huge disparity in average household wealth – for every $100 of wealth possessed by white families, a black family holds only $10, even when academic attainment is the same – is best explained through the implications of these hard power enshrinements of white privilege.

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