Making Affirmative Action White Again

The congressmen from the 17 states that practiced legal segregation constituted a pivotal bloc. When Southern-led congressional committees drafted the law that created the Social Security program in 1935, they excluded maids and farmworkers, the two dominant job categories for Southern blacks and Southwestern Latinos, from the program. This denied benefits to 66 percent of African-Americans across the country, and as much as 80 percent of Southern blacks. It also disproportionately hurt Mexican-Americans.

These exclusions “reinforced the semblance of a caste system of labor in the South and Southwest,” according to a recent study by the scholar David Stoesz. “Absent a government safety net, minority workers had to work at any wage available, until they dropped.” Although the exclusions were eliminated in the 1950s, it proved difficult for these workers to catch up, since the program required at least five years of contributions before benefits could be received.

Southern legislators introduced the same job category exclusions into other New Deal laws: the Wagner Act of 1935 that helped to expand industrial unions, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that mandated a 40-hour workweek and a minimum wage that explicitly left out agricultural and domestic workers.

Representative James Wilcox, a Depression-era Florida Democrat, explained the region’s position during the Fair Labor Standards Act debate: “You cannot put the Negro and the white man on the same basis and get away with it,” he declared.

When Congress passed the G.I. Bill in 1944 to help white veterans buy homes, attend college, get job training and start business ventures, it could have done the same for blacks. But at Southern lawmakers’ insistence, local officials administered these benefits. As a result, Southern blacks were left out, except for low-level vocational training. The law accommodated segregation in higher education, created job ceilings imposed by local officials, and…

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