Not-so-positive discrimination

Kevin Yuill’s enlightening new book shows that ‘affirmative action’ arose not from an optimistic vision of the future, but from despair.

Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action, Kevin Yuill, Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.

The USA has an awkward reputation on race. In the eyes of its critics, America is the daddy of all racists, the United States of Lyncherdom. Los Angeles, Alabama and the Deep South, Watts, Harlem – these place-names are all bywords for racial strife.

But it is also the country that sets the standard on race relations. Where else, asked Tony Blair (as if he was not our prime minister), could someone like Colin Powell rise to the position that he has? Civil rights, race awareness training, ethnic monitoring, race harassment laws were all pioneered in the USA.

One American reform that has been widely adopted across the world is affirmative action, the positive discrimination in favour of ethnic minority, and women, candidates for jobs. After discrimination against minorities was made illegal, the federal government went one step further and decided to compensate for past discrimination to redress the balance. Positive discrimination is one step that the British law still forbids, though large employers in the public and private sector get around this by showing that they favour minority candidates in their recruitment campaigns.

Affirmative action has been controversial. In the 1980s conservatives rallied opposition to affirmative action programmes in the name of white ‘victims’ of reverse discrimination, like Allan Bakke, who lost his Davis Medical School place to a less qualified minority candidate (until he was reinstated under a Supreme Court ruling). In the angry race debates of the 1980s, radicals rallied to defend affirmative action, convincing themselves that it was axiomatic of a just society. Affirmative action survived, and pointedly is one liberal measure that the current Bush administration has shown no inclination to repeal.

Kevin Yuill’s book, Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action, demolishes the case that the policy is in any way progressive or radical.  What Yuill shows is that affirmative action was a policy that arose not from an optimistic vision of the future, but out of despair. Far from being an alternative to racism, affirmative action institutionalises racial discrimination, a kind of divide-and-rule policy that lets federal agencies control the racial mix in the workplace.

As Yuill explains, progressive and radical thought about race baulked at positive discrimination in the boom years after the Second World War. It was the eminent Swedish sociologist Karl Gunnar Myrdal who popularised the idea that the American Creed implied everyone deserved a chance to better themselves in his monumental study, An American Dilemma. Even the Black Panthers took the view that the solution to job discrimination was full employment.

Only at the point that the forward momentum of the American economy stalled did the idea of positive discrimination come to the fore. Yuill shows that the ideas of redistributing the rewards (and by implication, redistributing the misery) were part and parcel of a generalised sense of despair at economic progress, as exemplified in the growth of apocalyptic green screeds like the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth (1972), and before that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). The belief that resources were running out suggested that a smaller cake had to be shared out more evenly.

Yuill lines up this liberal sacred cow for the slaughter with his patient explanation that the true architect of affirmative action policies is none other than the radical hate figure, Richard Milhous Nixon. In the Sixties, the Democrat presidents John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson did nothing to promote affirmative action; following his election in 1969, Nixon not only launched it, he also fought to save it on the Congress floor and created the machinery to ensure its implementation. Under the Philadelphia Plan, construction firms’ contracts with the authorities had clauses demanding minority representation in the workforce. Once the Philadelphia Plan set the standard, Nixon’s Executive Order 11478 created the machinery to enforce positive discrimination in Federal Employment, with full-time equal opportunities representatives in each Civil Service Commission office.

Practically, the Philadelphia Plan did little to lever black workers into the skilled trade of construction work, at least not until the recession and attacks by employers had chipped away at construction workers’ wages. Unions did guard white jobs, but the government attack on them chimed helpfully with employers’ attempts to force down living standards.

Some have commented on the apparent contradiction that one of America’s most reactionary presidents should also be author of the left’s cherished cause of affirmative action. But generally they return to the comfort zone by arguing that Nixon ‘retreated’ from his support for affirmative action by leading the white backlash against black and radical America. In a well-known speech on 3 November 1969, Nixon addressed ‘you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans’. His message resonated because people understood it meant those white citizens who were not protesting for more government support.

Yuill shows that this new appeal to the ‘silent majority’ was indeed provoked by Nixon’s frustration with the lack of gratitude shown by black organisations for affirmative action. In fact, the prospect of government support only gave such representatives an incentive to criticise government for not doing more. But Yuill’s striking insight is that the appeal to the ‘un-poor, un-black, un-young’ was not a reversal of the affirmative action policy; it was its natural end-point.

The whole ‘silent majority’ schtick worked because it let the white majority re-imagine itself in the same terms that were previously reserved for people of colour: as victims of discrimination, in need of support from the state. Nixon, elected to ‘lower voices’ in the race conflict, had succeeded in dividing the American people against each other, leaving the state to arbitrate their disputes. Before the silent majority speech, his team had experimented with positive discrimination in favour of other minorities, like Native Americans and Chicanos, and even thought of extending the same to white ethnics, Italians and Poles, to dilute the claims of black Americans. By appealing to the silent majority, Nixon succeeded in turning everyone into supplicants before the federal government. Even the attempts to reverse affirmative action decisions in the Eighties were cases of one group seeking to lobby the courts to enforce better terms, justified in terms of their supposed victimisation.

I first met Kevin Yuill in the late 1980s when we were both working for London Boroughs, campaigning together against job cuts, before he moved on to complete his doctorate and become a lecturer. Last week I read in the paper that my boss then, Carol Adams, had died. Her obituary lauded a feminist champion of the underdog, which I am sure is what she wanted to be. But I remember that when Haringey Council started handing out the redundancy notices, they were overwhelmingly given to black people. The incoming Labour administration had boosted black employment, but on the advice of their accountants, these new jobs had to be temporary contracts to meet the obligation to stay within budget. That is what positive discrimination looks like, a supposedly radical Labour council sacking black people first, while the white majority learn to degrade themselves, defending their patch by playing the victim.

Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action is the model of what good scholarship should be (the explanation of the concept of ‘merit’, on page 162, on its own is worth the price of the book). Yuill patiently elicits the emergence of a decisive policy, showing at each turn how the debate moved on. On the way he gives us a diligently sophisticated reconstruction of Nixon’s White House, and shows how it relates to theories like John Rawls’ ‘original position’ and Jurgen Habermas’ ‘legitimation crisis’. He takes something that we thought we understood, affirmative action, and makes us see it completely afresh; and most intriguingly shows that the ‘white backlash’ was not a reaction against affirmative action, but its realisation.

James Heartfield is a writer based in London. Visit his website here. Kevin Yuill’s Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action is published by Rowman & Littlefield. Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

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