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When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America

4.1  ·  Rating Details ·  523 Ratings  ·  39 Reviews
In this "penetrating new analysis" (New York Times Book Review) Ira Katznelson fundamentally recasts our understanding of twentieth-century American history and demonstrates that all the key programs passed during the New Deal and Fair Deal era of the 1930s and 1940s were created in a deeply discriminatory manner. Through mechanisms designed by Southern Democrats that spec ...more
Paperback, 272 pages
Published August 17th 2006 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published August 22nd 2005)
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Tressie Mcphd
Jan 06, 2013 Tressie Mcphd rated it it was amazing
My new thing after reading this book was to add "when it was white" to the end of every discussion of social policy and institutions. I have a particular sense of humor.

So, the premise of the book is that what we have coded as "minority" programs in the U.S. -- welfare, affirmative action, food stamps, etc. -- are just the inverse of accumulated white privilege. Using the greatest expansion of social programs in our history - the New Deal - Katznelson details how political and cultural processes
Jun 10, 2008 Jill rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in issues of race, class, and justice
Wow. This wasn't the most exciting read style wise, but I was blown away by what I learned. I of course, knew about slavery, Jim Crow, etc, but this book outlined how African Americans were squeezed out of many federal programs that lifted many whites out of poverty, The New Deal, GI Bill (education benefits and loans for homes), and even social security and unemployment.

For example, social security and unemployment benefits were specifically engineered to cut out domestic workers and farm work
Mar 19, 2013 Pascal rated it really liked it
Very crucial book that should be read by all. Details how Black Americans in large numbers were left out the most significant benefits of the New Deal. Including, Social Security, Minimum Wage protection, and the benefits of the GI Bill. This book should place the affirmative action debate in a better historical context since it illustrates only some of the few ways America bolstered the economic prospects of its White Citizens and neglected Blacks almost wholesale.
Jun 09, 2016 Betty rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016, non-fiction
This is a comprehensive look at how the decentralized implementation of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the GI Bill enabled entrenched racism. The biggest policies towards economic equality in the 20th century therefore de facto excluded black Americans from reaping benefits on anywhere near the same scale as white Americans. Largely focused on the 1930s and 1940s, this book slotted in nicely alongside other history I've been reading on related subjects- Race and Reunion: The Civil War in Ameri ...more
Sam Dancis
Apr 02, 2008 Sam Dancis rated it it was amazing
Shelves: schoolbooks
This book had a profound effect on how I view race and institutionalized racism. My friends and I constantly cite it when we get in discussions with other people about contemporary racism and racial inequality; and why it is the responsibility of the American government to institute policies that address these issues.
It's a must read for everyone, but especially high school and college students.
Sava Hecht
Nov 02, 2007 Sava Hecht rated it really liked it
Wow. I was a bit stunned while reading this book. Not too surprised, but stunned nevertheless. No matter which side of the Affirmative Action debate you are on, I'm sure that this book will open your eyes.
May 16, 2016 Tomi rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a short but eye-opening book, and the history it details is both important and fascinating. Katznelson makes a persuasive case for affirmative action as a corrective for identifiable instances of government intervention on behalf of white Americans, rather than as a generalized apology for racism. In doing so, he also highlights the effectiveness of those social programs - the GI Bill, Social Security, etc. - thus providing encouraging evidence of the types of benefits that more aggressi ...more
Sep 27, 2016 Karl rated it liked it
I read this book because I respect Glenn Loury and he uses it to teach his undergraduate class on race and inequality at Brown University. My impression is that that is the appropriate place for this text. It is a good text for people who do not know the story of Southern segregation, Progressive agitation, and the complicity of FDR and the Democratic party with this oppression from the 1910’s to the 1960’s. I have no doubt there are a great number of people (likely a majority) to whom these fac ...more
David Bates
May 23, 2013 David Bates rated it really liked it
In When Affirmative Action was White, published in 2005, Ira Katznelson makes the case that the American government should recommit itself to affirmative action policies. Rather than general racial preference policies justified by socio-economic disparities, he advocates programs that recompense provable discrimination in the administration of New Deal programs. The bulk of his work is a synthesis of historical scholarship on the development and implementation of federal programs in the Roosevel ...more
Sep 21, 2016 Aloysius rated it liked it
Want to know why we need affirmative action? Because, according to this book, African Americans were not granted equal access to the public goods provided by the New Deal and Fail Deal programs, which exacerbated inequality and denied millions of people access to middle class status. The book makes its case well, though it can get a little long for my taste.
Chesapeake Bae
Until two summers ago, I didn't know much about the 20th century history of African Americans. I still don't, but this book helps immeasurably in filling a gap in my knowledge.

What I learned two summers ago was that African American veterans who served in World War II were not granted the same freedom to use the GI bill to go to college, or get a home loan guaranteed by the Veteran's Administration, the way that millions of other white American men did. Only then did my eyes open to other level
Jun 07, 2011 Eric rated it really liked it
This important work addresses a fascinating and extremely significant chapter in 20th Century history: As the result of a "Faustian compromise" with conservative Democrats, programs of the New Deal and post-WW II era were designed and implemented in a manner that systematically excluded African Americans from the broad stream of benefits from Social Security, the GI Bill, and many other government programs.

To my knowledge, no one before Katnelson has ever broached this subject. His history is t
Dec 18, 2015 Vee rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Yes, I thought the chapter concerning labor and union was a drag but the overall argument throughout the book is compelling. Katznelson's narrative surrounding the Great Deal, New Deal, and the glorious GI Bill is important. This book should be required reading for the 2016 Republican candidates that decry free stuff, handouts, and wealth re-distribution.

What's next?
I wonder if any researcher disputes the findings in this work.
Before this book, my knowledge about the 36th President was very lim
David A-S
Jul 06, 2016 David A-S rated it really liked it
Katznelson certainly makes me wish politicians and media pundits read more policy books. This book should be required reading for those in the public American forum.

When Affirmative Action was White makes plain that racism was a governmental institution not just in denying blacks certain opportunities, but also in granting it to others. Katznelson focuses on the New Deal and WWII related policies, which were both so fraught with compromises with the Southern Democrats. Yes, there were many help
Jul 13, 2014 Bill added it
Yes policy is in part responsible for the creation of the American middle class. We like to think it was just good ole American ingenuity and hard work, but actually the big bad government did proactive things that made us a middle class society(and is working hard to undo the last 30 years). Homestead act. NLRB. The GI bill. The VA and FHA. Even training programs in the military during the the world wars. And here's the thing. These all benefited almost exclusively white people and left out peo ...more
Sep 05, 2014 Wendy rated it really liked it
This was an excellent book and a perfect follow up to Ta-Nehisi Coates article in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic, The Case for Reparations. Things haven't changed much since this book was published in 2005. The perfect example is the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Allowing states to opt out of Medicaid expansion again disproportionately affects black people. A lot of the states that have opted out are southern states with large poor black populations, like Louisiana. The real problem is s ...more
Shawn Steele
Aug 06, 2013 Shawn Steele rated it really liked it
Ira Katznelson in "When Affirmative Action was White" completely reignites the seemingly exhausted scholarship on affirmative action. Not only does he do this, but his argument is an entirely untouched concept, not just involving affirmative action but with the New Deal, general American race theory, and United States history. While hardly in and of itself an exhaustive account, Katznelson argues in a concise, clear and effective manner that knows exactly when to end.
Shay Akil McLean
Jan 31, 2013 Shay Akil McLean rated it it was amazing
This book is great for looking at all of the legalities involved in regards to the 2nd & 3rd expansions of Whiteness in the US. This book can be considered as dry to some with the legal language but it is a gold mine in regards to opening the eyes of the reader to how the White privilege was literally written into the law & how statism, racial rhetoric, & subtle racism came to be in America. A must read!
Dan Gorman
May 25, 2013 Dan Gorman rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Katznelson skillfully shows how the New Deal expanded democratic civil society for whites, but not for African Americans. He shows how both parties in Congress were guilty of using coded bill language to enforce the racial status quo, and how the Democratic Party in the South - which supported the policies put forward by our modern GOP - stymied civil rights for a long time. Katznelson also makes a compelling case that we still need affirmative action today.
Brett Linsley
Feb 28, 2013 Brett Linsley rated it really liked it
If you consider citizenship a responsibility, or have a general inclination to fulfill civic duty in the US, this book is necessary reading. As John Conyers and several other African American congressman have indicated, reparations has little to do with throwing money at the black community - it's a matter of recognizing and acknowledging our nation's unbecoming history. This book is a great place to start.
Eric Bottorff
May 06, 2016 Eric Bottorff rated it liked it
Essential reading for anyone interested in the history of racial inequality in this country. My only real complaint is that the last chapter struck me as somewhat uneven in terms of focus and argumentation--the attempt to connect it to current debates felt a little forced or overdone, as the intellectual work had been done simply via the history detailed in all the prior chapters.
Mar 08, 2015 Karen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
solid read on the history of racial preference in application of federal policies

Solidly researched in the areas of New Deal and GI Bill - specifically how policy were crafted to appear race neutral while being applied in racially discriminatory ways. I highly recommend his book based on these sections.
Jul 10, 2014 Sylvia rated it it was amazing
This is an excellent read. If you want to understand the wealth gap between groups, it provides quite a profound historical account on how we have gotten here and provides names of legislators and policies that helped some and hindered others. It hurt to see how people can deprive one another to benefit a culture of hate and dominance.
Aug 27, 2016 Frank rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A great read in conjunction with Ta-Nehisi Coates's recent Atlantic piece on the case for reparations, this book details how public policy and national programs from the New Deal through the GI Bill—because of the undemocratic influence of racist Southern senators and acquiescent Northern ones—widened the gap between black and white Americans.
Apr 09, 2013 Noah marked it as to-read
In its larger structure, there wasn't a lot new in here for me (we covered a lot of the topics in a college course I took). But Katznelson has a clear moral vision, an eye for historical detail and a unique attention to the importance of Congressional politics. Highly recommended if you want to learn about the racism written into the New Deal.
Lee Tyner
Mar 06, 2014 Lee Tyner rated it it was ok
The authors writing style is near void of voice. Also, he beats every point to death by stating and restating it. It has some interesting content but I found the writing style to be miserable to read.
Jun 24, 2015 Diane rated it really liked it
Highly recommend. The New Deal, Fair Deal, GI Bill and even in the beginning, social security were for whites only/mostly from the way the were deployed. The middle class was built on these programs.
Dec 21, 2010 Anneke rated it really liked it
Approachable and well-argued; while this book wasn't terribly prescriptive, it did make the argument that is rarely heard about what benefits non-minorities have historically received in the United States in comparison to those that are under threat for minorities now.
Apr 05, 2015 Jeff rated it it was amazing
An incredible book. Really shows the power of scholarship to uncover parts of our history that have been conveniently swept under the rug.
Charles Stephen
May 23, 2013 Charles Stephen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The chapters on the GI Bill were thought provoking and definitely expanded my thinking about how privileged whites have been in the U.S.
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