One of the Affirmative Action issues I have read in comments on the blog, have read in various publications and newspapers, and have discussed with the spousal unit is the perception, accurate or not, that AFAC (to distinguish from AA) will not help anyone who is white and male, regardless of his family background. It has been described as everything from an unforseen side-effect to a deliberate reverse discrimination objective. I think this is the biggest area of failure in the equal opportunity measures and is what Democrats should have been addressing all along. What I'm going to try to do in this post is talk about the blind spot in equal opportunity programs, why it is there, how it was allowed to grow, and how this is a fertile ground for the Right's politics of resentment. First, we have to talk about manufacturing jobs in the post-war period.
If you have not read Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins novels, get yourself to a bookstore or library at once and devour them. While these are great detective novels, the reason to read them is for the picture Mosely paints of post-war Los Angeles, which was a manufacturing powerhouse and a big draw for African Americans extricating themselves from the segregated South. While most people know about the AA northern migration to New York, Chicago, Detroit and various manufacturing centers in the Northeast and Midwest, LA was also a prime destination. People of all races and backgrounds flocked to LA for the great weather and plentiful manufacturing jobs that expanded exponentially during the WWII factory boom. No or little education? Not a problem if you are willing to learn the line work. Mosely's novels chronicle the rise and fall of manufacturing employment in Los Angeles and the devastation it inflicted on the AA population starting in the 60s, long before the same downsizing, plant consolidation and move to overseas locations hit the traditional manufacturing centers of the East and Midwest.
The contraction of the manufacturing economy, the largest source of high-paying manual labor jobs (ranging from unskilled to highly skilled), started first in plants located in urban cores with large black populations. It took until the Reagan recession of the early 80s for it to wreak the same kind of destruction on white working class populations. The popular narrative describing the impoverishment and unrest among black populations ignores the economic catastrophe and pathologizes the brutalized community itself as "ghetto culture". This is where Mosley is highly instructive by following the life trajectory of a WWII veteran, Easy, through the height of AA working class affluence in LA through the destruction of that brief period of expanding wealth and stability. A similar story can be told about the effect of de-industrialization on white populations, but it takes place over a longer period of time and the affected populations were simultaneously glorified by the Right, who gladly helped undermine the manufacturing base while they undermined the social safety net that would have protected this displaced population, and treated equivocally by the Left, who too often argued that if only these Archie Bunker types would have taken advantage of higher education, they wouldn't have been trapped in these dead-end jobs.
Which gets us to the GI Bill. To the degree that there was an equal opportunity program that was targeted directly at white poor and working class men, it was the GI Bill. It was never thought of in this way, though that was its effect. The GI Bill forced open access to higher education - and thus routes into the white collar middle class - in a way pretty much unheard of. It wasn't a soldier's pension to allow someone to live comfortably within his class the rest of his days, but an actual opportunity to leave behind the danger and uncertainty of manual labor and gain socio-economic status where wealth could be accumulated and life prospects improved. The GI Bill was the fuel that powered the engine of post-war college and university expansion. The California college system - still the finest three-tier public higher education model in the world - has its roots in this program. People who would never have been considered college material before WWII now had the means and the political backing to get the training to enter professions.
It is difficult to understand just how limited access to higher education was before this program. My grandfather, who was a Navy surgeon in WWII, had to leave medical school (despite being a lecturer in the school, despite having written a text book still in use today by most major medical schools, despite laying the ground work for what we know today as arthroscopic surgery) because he was a poor farm kid from South Dakota and couldn't pay for tuition. No student aid in the 20s and 30s. He joined the military to pay the education bills. If you've had your knee repaired with arthroscopy, thank my Grandpa and all the sailors whose knees he operated on over the years. His own sons were able to take advantage of the GI Bill, with two doing so directly as veterans themselves and the third who now had an expanded UC system that accepted all California high school students with minimum academic achievements and the rediculously low in-state tuition amount. Students whose academic levels weren't so good could go in at the Cal State level, and everyone else was welcome at the community colleges where they could learn the basics and transfer to a Cal State or a UC - like the spousal unit did.
When begun, the GI Bill was really only available to the white soldiers from WWII. Minorities may have been eligible for it, but what schools would admit them? Women were doubly handicapped as they were not GIs and they were not accepted in most colleges. Their experiences in WWII, where they built things, ran things, worked outside the home and were in charge of their lives, got squashed very badly with their "domestication" in the 50s (read Stephanie Coontz's The Way We Never Were). The identity politics of the 60s and 70s had access to higher education as a central concern because it was a route to wealth and security being denied to minorities and women at an institutional level. It was not just training for professions, of course, but also access to the informal networks of trained professionals who could then help you get in the door at companies where you would not be considered without someone to "vouch" for you. Ironically, AFAC as applied in the workplace is precisely to disrupt those informal, insider networks where personal relationships (family ties, old friends, membership in the same academic clubs, etc.) were the grounds for employment and not formal job qualifications. If you could no longer just hire the manager's niece's new hubby for that managerial slot, but had to actually look at education and had to demonstrate that you were not silently discriminating by hiring minorities and women at a level consistent with their percentage in the population, then the institutional practices of inequality and discrimination became more costly to maintain than to abandon.
As mentioned above, lurking in the background to these advances for larger portions of the public was the contraction of the manufacturing sector. (Note, the conservative attack on unions was also part of this, but is too much to address in a blog post.) Starting in the 60s in urban cores and working outwards through the 70s and hitting full force in the early 80s, the erosion of this employment base hit all working class groups hard, but did not hit them at the same time. With the Reagan recession, where were working class white males to go? Higher education was starting its enormous climb in cost, the military was still rebuilding from the Vietnam War (read up on Wes Clark's account of these times for the military), and the minorities and women who had finally been allowed to take advantage of open admissions for white collar training were entering the workforce in substantial numbers. If decent paying manufacturing jobs were gone, and you didn't want to (or were to old to) join the military, and you didn't have a sterling high school record, and you weren't elegible for some really sweet scholarships and stipends, and you had a family to support and weren't really that into going back to school, and you were white and male, just what were you supposed to do?
The changing economy came for minorities first, creating inner-city blight that was then ascribed to racial failings, but eventually it worked its way out to the white working class. The biggest failure of the Democrats at this period in time was failing to address this new socio-economic condition, when the post-war boom was ended and majority of the country lost economic ground. Instead, they remained wedded to a simplistic identity politics model for enforcing equal access to education and employment. It was not so much wrong (entrenched privilege always needs to be challenged and dismantled) as inadequate, unable to shift and address the very real economic distress assailing a large portion of its own constituency.
AFAC has developed its own patterns and modes of entrenched privilege, which is pretty much a given for any program that can actually create access to wealth. The internal contradictions and tensions of trying to dismantle institutional advantage are both being exploited for gain by people who are not particularly disadvantaged and being exaggerated to encourage class division when we most need unity. That's the next topic of discussion.
Posts in this series: