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A History of Affirmative Action, 1619-2000
Philip F. Rubio
University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
$48.00, 288 pages, ISBN 1-57806-354-X (hardback).
$20.00, 327 pages, ISBN 1-57806-355-8 (paperback).

Bernard Cros
Université d'Avignon

The current emotional debates over affirmative action were not born in the America of the 1960s. As Philip F. Rubio demonstrates, evidence is to be found from colonial times throughout the history of the United States: his historical study which goes back explicitly to the arrival of the first black African slaves on American soil in 1619, describes the endless roller-coaster struggle for black equal rights and opportunity: each bridgehead established after a bitter struggle (as in the Civil War and the ensuing Reconstruction period, or in the 1960s with the civil rights movement) to ensure that the disadvantaged communities would obtain an artificial return for their past and present hardships was followed by an equally active period of reaction by pro-white social forces (including notably, although with various degrees of influence, executive, legislative and judicial powers) which tended to push back into indifference, or worse still, to strike down, whatever progress had been made. The whole book points to the means to ensure compensation for blacks as much as to the extreme resistance of the “American racial caste system”.

Rubio’s demonstration rests on several key hypotheses which are in due course examined and vindicated:

(1). It is essential to understand first “the reactionary tenacity of whiteness” as an ideology which has kept thwarting the attempts by black activists to obtain a better bargain in America’s social and economic order since the seventeenth century. The debate centers around power-sharing and the shaking of the established white order.

(2). Just as the “white race” is a social and historical construction which can be traced to the early colonies, “whiteness” is an “invented voluntary social institution”, constantly redefined, designed to justify, and therefore maintain, the privileges of whites over blacks. Even the Catholic Irish, once the scum of the earth for the English “natives”, became co-opted as whites inside a great “Nordic” European group at the end of the nineteenth century, while the Poles, Italians and Russians were accepted in the mid-twentieth century.

(3). Affirmative action spreads to all sorts of domains, but is essentially and historically associated with black discrimination in employment, where whites have felt the threatening competition of the black man. Actions in favor of other disadvantaged groups (Hispanics, Native Americans, women, gays etc.), as well as in other areas (education, housing, healthcare…), all stem from the founding black struggle in the workplace. This is all the more important as the blacks have consistently remained the poorest community, whoever the newcomers (Irish, North and South Europeans, Asians…) were.

(4). Affirmative action mechanisms were originally designed not to elevate blacks, but to protect whites from being deprived of their privileges. Turning the issue upside down, Rubio states that the real issue is not whether African Americans should be compensated to correct discrimination, but rather why whites should continue to receive preferential treatment on the basis of their whiteness. Blacks were often barred from engaging in certain trades, or a minimum number of white workers were required. Champions of the white cause have always wielded the danger of unfair advantages given to the blacks at any sign of potential corrective measure which by definition would be made at their expense.

Rubio illustrates the manipulation and contradictions of the arguments used by opponents of such mechanisms. For instance, critics attack affirmative action on the grounds that it allows a category of citizens to stand out unduly to benefit from privileges (job reservation or college education), and that a whole group can thus be sponsored while the Constitution only points to and protects the rights of individuals only. Of course, such view points underestimate the starting point that if blacks should be “picked out” from the rest for help, it is precisely because the mechanisms of privilege have been working without interruption in favor of the whites since the beginnings of the European presence. Polls reveal how a majority of the white population are ready to recognize past discrimination and accept the need for affirmative action programs, but refuse the logical outcome of such an admirable position, namely concrete preferential treatment on the job market, in housing or education. Opponents to black progress also use the moral myth of “America-as-meritocracy”, emphasizing its egalitarian appeal, to counter any corrective measure on the grounds that it corrupts that essential component of the American dream by denying worthy individuals a deserved right which they would have enjoyed had it not been for the less deserving black person who was chosen instead. Social conditions being paramount to success in such areas as education, it was no surprise that standardized admission tests to colleges and universities were so easily imposed in the 1940s and 1950s.

The book also sheds light on the ambiguous role played by courts, particularly the Supreme Court which has often held back the advances of affirmative action. In 1883, for instance, the Supreme Court ruled in Civil Rights Cases that blacks were now “mere citizens” and should no longer be “the special favorite of the laws”. Here again, the “principle of reality” steps in: it is all very well to call blacks “mere citizens” while at the same time denying them the actual means of being equal citizens. (Rubio’s study of reactions to and usage of the Fourteenth Amendment is very instructive.) This is probably the author’s main source of concern and anger: white America refuses to accept that it has been overtly privileged and that affirmative action is not some kind of unfair benefit awarded to a privileged caste, precisely because white Americans have always been the privileged caste. Being white means having a certain “value”—refusing to award American citizenship to blacks for so long was a way to avoid civic miscegenation as “citizenship would be somehow devalued”.

As an overtly Marxist writer, Rubio emphasizes the class dimension of his subject. Once a blue-collar worker, labor and community activist himself, he demonstrates authoritatively that a majority of white workers have always preferred short-term gains to class solidarity with fellow black workers (even when competition for jobs is not fierce, race solidarity tends to prevail) and has therefore always played in the hands of capital—an illustration of Karl Marx’s own belief that workers’ division is what maintains capitalism alive. The Great Depression provides crucial examples of white-only unions authorized to engage in bargaining, so that even the New Deal resulted in a strengthening of white privilege and blacks faring worse than the other groups. WWII did nothing to improve the situation as the shortage of manpower in factories was only marginally compensated by blacks—the race factor was still prevalent among employers who preferred to take on white women.

The various strands of the black struggle are also examined in critical terms. Abandoned largely by whites, Rubio explains, blacks understood early that it was up to them to organize and obtain rights for themselves. The options have oscillated between the “uplift ideology” of Booker T. Washington, who claimed that the black man must earn his way into the white man’s world through twice as much effort and conformity to white America which will eventually reward his goodwill with rights (a mirror image of the paternalistic attitude of some liberal whites ready to bestow a few “tokens” on a few blacks), and the radical, confrontational ideas of the Black Panthers and Nation of Islam, which consider that humiliation is not the way and that the black man need not wait for the patronizing white man to surrender anything to him. According to the author, the foundation is to be found first in the lost battles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Jim Crow era, when “new forms of black-led protest and organization against white privilege” emerged. Harlem was a hotbed of such direct action, which included strikebreaking, boycotting “(Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns), picketing of factories and stores (to obtain the right to work there), while legal battles were also engaged in courts. After WWII, the context of affluence encouraged blacks to demand a bigger share of the pie and to challenge the white privileges. Then Southern segregation became a symbol of America’s race problem and provided the advanced guard of the struggle.

Interestingly, though unsurprisingly, Rubio claims to dispel the myth that “the civil rights movement was [purely] a black middle-class phenomenon” when “both the civil rights and Black Power movements […] had black working-class origins.” “Affirmative action became the result of the collective—though not always united—black community struggle against white supremacy, rather than a victory for the black middle-class at the expense of black workers.” However, he acknowledges the Black Panthers as the crucial institution, without which “there would be no such thing as affirmative action today.” This does not mean that the agenda or the means used by the various anti-discrimination movements were the same. Rubio insists on the two-fold goal of affirmative action: (1) ensuring a better bargain in the contemporary world, and (2) obtaining reparation for past discrimination. At the same time, the means ranged from non-violence to extreme violence. Indirectly, their pressure probably resulted in Presidents Kennedy and Johnson signing executive orders which started to bring down discrimination in the workplace, although it was the Civil Rights Act which terminated it officially in 1964. As time went by, affirmative action programs proved efficient, but they have had to resist the resilience of white privilege which has kept fighting back, especially, although not just, in the South. The book sheds light on the Reagan and Bush administrations which set out to eliminate all affirmative action programs and sanctions for employers breaching anti-discrimination legislation, which impeded economic activity and market forces.

However the study sometimes fails to provide enough conceptual tools and definitions to tackle the issue at large. As a historian and not a philosopher, Rubio was probably less interested in a thorough examination of the very expression “affirmative action” and its synonyms like “positive discrimination”—which strangely enough is never used. The philosophical origin of the notion is mentioned (the old English legal concept of “equity” born in the thirteenth century) but not developed. The same can be said of its first recorded use in 1871 (in reference “to safeguarding black civil rights from the white affirmative action of state-sanctioned discrimination and refusal to stop white supremacist terrorism” at a time of Ku Klux Klan violence in the South). As a matter of fact, the title does not even allude to the fact that only America is envisaged, when so many other societies across the world—like South Africa, Britain and France—could put the lessons of the American experience to use. Despite these minor reservations, A History of Affirmative Action, 1619-2000, fraught with details and anecdotes, makes challenging and enlightening reading about one of the hottest political potatoes in contemporary America.

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