When Affirmative Action Was White*

Ah, the comments section for online news stories. Should it be avoided at all costs? Or is it a useful way to get insight into the pulse of the people? If the news announcing Pres. Obama’s executive order to institute mild student loan reform is any indication it’s even worse than it looks. Yet, on other sites the commentary and reaction following Ta-Nehisi Coates tour de force on reparations has been, on the whole, one of the most engaging and thoughtful online discussions I’ve ever been a part of. If you haven’t read it yet, do it! I think it may prove to be the most important thing published this year.


Contempory politcal cartoon on reparations.

I’ll be making a bit of a Reconstruction-politics pilgrimage this fall, so there will likely be a lot of political cartoons from that era coming up later this year. However, the online discussions over the last month or so immediately made me think of this political cartoon (below) from just after the Civil War. It represents complete outrage over appropriating money to establish a Freedman’s Bureau to assist and educate newly emancipated slaves. Free (primary) education and job placement assistance for African-Americans provokes the image of lazy takers then as it does today.

Yet on the left hard-working white Americans toil honestly splitting rails. Could that have been a homestead? You know, free land granted by the US government to those wiling to cultivate and occupy it? The method by which countless pioneers settled the hinterlands and tamed the wild? Funny how no one says “government handouts won the West”.  From where I stand free land definitely counts as a government handout.

Going forward I think Coates’ piece might go down as when we started rethinking the framing device for the reparations discussion. Unlike the contemporary cartoon above it’s not about “paying for what your ancestors did”. Nor is it about getting blood money for something horrible that happened to one’s ancestors.  It’s not about personal racism or Ancestry.com forays. It’s about studying institutional programs over the years: from slavery to redlining in 1970s Chicago. It’s about a public admission and reckoning that much of the success and earned wealth of the United States of America came through successful federal and state “Big Government” programs: the Homestead Act, the GI Bill, the National Industrial Recovery Act. “Big Government” affirmative action programs when Affirmative Action was white.


1866 anti-Freedmans’ Bureau political cartoon from Pennsylvania.


* thanks to author Ira Katznelson for the inspiration and phenomenal research.


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