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My Response to Andrew Sullivan's Thoughts on Affirmative Action

Dear Andrew,

In your recent post Thoughts on Affirmative Action, early on you claimed that the G.I. Bill "was a huge step forward for meritocracy in America." You should be very careful with your history here. As pointed out by Ira Katznelson in his book When Affirmative Action Was White (see also this NY Times book review),  Jim Crow laws and practices were baked into the G.I. Bill. The congressional "Dixiecrats" at the time ensured that the administration of G.I. Bill benefits (and Federal Housing Administration loan insurance, and WPA jobs) was left up to each state individually. This meant that Black soldiers in the South returning from WWII were often denied government benefits from these so-called meritocratic programs. Black veterans in the North were barred from buying houses in white neighborhoods, and couldn't obtain loans in Black neighborhoods due to housing shortages and the practice of redlining. 

From the NY Times book review (which is easier to copy-paste than my copy of Katznelson's book)

The statistics on disparate treatment are staggering. By October 1946, 6,500 former soldiers had been placed in nonfarm jobs by the employment service in Mississippi; 86 percent of the skilled and semiskilled jobs were filled by whites, 92 percent of the unskilled ones by blacks. In New York and northern New Jersey, ''fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill supported home purchases by nonwhites.'' Discrimination continued as well in elite Northern colleges. The University of Pennsylvania, along with Columbia the least discriminatory of the Ivy League colleges, enrolled only 46 black students in its student body of 9,000 in 1946. The traditional black colleges did not have places for an estimated 70,000 black veterans in 1947. At the same time, white universities were doubling their enrollments and prospering with the infusion of public and private funds, and of students with their G.I. benefits.

I challenge you to do dig deeper into this history before opining that government assistance programs represent anything approaching a meritocracy. In fact, citing the G.I. Bill provides a powerful refutal to that notion. White men were able to attain government backed housing loans and government subsidized post-graduate education via the G.I Bill. This allowed them to accumulate wealth in the decades since, while Black people were actively excluded from that process. It's almost like action was taken to affirm the place of white men in this country!

Ignorance of this history is why well-meaning and otherwise knowledgeable white people scratch their heads about the present-day 20:1 wealth gap between whites and Blacks, when we all know the number one asset for many people is the house they own. Those houses and the associated wealth were acquired by white men via America's most successful race-based affirmative action programs in history. But now that Black students are benefiting from similar programs at our universities? Suddenly it's not fair. 


John A. Johnson


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