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Affirmative Action for White Men?

by Paul Kivel (1)
Oakland, California

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You heard that saying about the guy with a rich father? The kid goes through life thinking that he hit a triple. But really he was born on third base. He didn’t hit no triple at all, but he’ll go around telling everyone he banged the fucking ball and it was a triple. He was born there! -- Kevin, 75-year-old retired homeowner (2)

Affirmative action programs started coming under increased attack in the mid 1990’s, especially in California and Florida where there were ballot initiatives to eliminate such policies completely. That affirmative action programs would become so embattled is certainly somewhat surprising. Although such programs initiated concrete steps to reverse past discrimination, they were small and much less than adequate in the face of the massive ongoing racism people of color continue to confront. Numerous studies document the extensive ongoing levels of racial discrimination in jobs, housing, the criminal justice system, health care, and education.

In 1996, confronted with Proposition 209, which if passed would eliminate AA programs in California, a group of white men in Oakland, CA came together to discuss ways that we could add our efforts to those of people of color who were defending affirmative action. We were angry that racism continued, angry that affirmative action was being curtailed, and angry that white men were portrayed as being the victims of affirmative action programs. We named ourselves Angry White Guys for Affirmative Action and began a campaign to address white people on the issue. We chose the name to challenge the conventional thinking that all white men were racist, reactive, and resentful of affirmative action.

We knew that part of the resistance to affirmative action programs was not about affirmative action per se, but part of a new set of attacks on people of color. The move to eliminate affirmative action developed during a period in which people of color were under attack on many fronts; most visibly and directly by public policies that have sharply curtailed welfare, denied immigrant rights, locked up adults and youth of color, dumped environmental toxins into communities of color, moved jobs out of urban communities, and systematically under funded schools in these communities.

I became involved in the struggle to end racism as a college student more than thirty years ago when I began to see the visible and devastating impact that racism had on people of color. It was clear to me that people of color, and African Americans and Latino/as in particular, were being denied voting rights, educational opportunities, jobs, and access to housing and then being blamed for the results of racial discrimination.

I could understand the justification for affirmative action programs as one way to redress some of the effects of racism in education and in the job market. Over the years, affirmative action programs seemed to be making small but important steps to overcome the legacy of racial discrimination. They seemed to be tilting the playing field a little more towards “level” so that everyone would have an equal opportunity.

My support for affirmative action was based on clear evidence that people of color continued to be discriminated against in our society and I believed that this was counter to our basic American value of equal opportunity for everyone. Affirmative action did not seem have anything to do with me personally because I had earned everything I had through hard work and intelligence. But for those with less opportunity or who faced discrimination, it seemed like a valuable program.

At an early meeting of Angry White Guys we talked about the history of affirmative action and someone asked a profoundly troubling question. “What about the history of affirmative action for white men?”

We spent some time sorting out what he meant, but it was quickly clear to all of us that we were the direct beneficiaries of a variety of affirmative action programs directed at white men -- that unasked for preferences and benefits came to us just because we were white and male.

As a group we felt that since we had benefited so directly from affirmative action programs it would be hypocritical to deny these benefits to people of color just when they had finally gained access to them. That, of course, would be further racism.

For myself, as I took careful stock of my family’s history over the last sixty years, I could trace the powerful and long lasting benefits that had accrued to me and my family because of affirmative action programs. I began to notice the numerous ways that my father and I, and indirectly the women in my family, had benefited from policies which either explicitly favored or showed a preference for white men, or explicitly excluded people of color and white women from consideration altogether.

Let me begin with my father (3) who served overseas in a desk job in the military during World War II. When he returned he was greeted with many government programs specifically designed to reintegrate him into society and help him overcome the disadvantage of having given his time to defend the country. The three most substantial programs were the G.I. Education Bill, the Veteran Administration Housing Authority, and the Veteran Administration health care system.

The benefits from these programs were primarily (although not exclusively) available to white men. As one study concludes, “Available data illustrate clearly that throughout the post-WWII era the benefits provided by each and every component of the MWS [militarized welfare state] disproportionately accrued to whites. Jim Crow and related overt exclusionary policies ensured that African Americans’ proportion of WWII veterans was significantly less than their portion of the total population. In the Korean War veterans population they were nearly as underrepresented. (4)

During most of World War II the armed services were strictly segregated. After the war many people of color were denied veteran’s benefits because they had served in jobs that were not considered eligible for such benefits. Many more were deliberately not informed about the benefits, were discouraged from applying when they inquired about them, or simply had their applications for benefits denied. The report cited above concludes “Thus, not only were far fewer blacks than whites able to participate in these programs, but those blacks who could participate received fewer benefits than their white counterparts. (5)

My father was able to continue his education on the G.I. bill (attending the nearly all white and largely male University of Southern California). He was not unique. 2.2 million primarily white men received higher education benefits from the G.I. Bill. In fact, by 1947 one half of all college students were veterans. (6)

When he applied to Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, and Bean for a training program to become a stock broker it was a program only for white men. If my father and the other white male job recruits had had to compete with white women and men and women of color, fewer than half of them would have ended up with those jobs. Being a stock broker was just one of many lucrative professions reserved for white men. When my father completed his training and joined the firm he was on the road to economic success with all the resources of a large national financial corporation behind him.

Besides the immediate impact that his wages and commissions as a stockbroker produced, there were other financial benefits he had privileged access to. The company had a generous pension plan. Not only did that have a significant impact later on in our family’s life, in the near future it meant that because my parents knew that their retirement was secure, they could save money for a car and for their children’s college education.

My father was also able to contribute to social security. Social Security had been set up to primarily benefit white male workers during the depression and my father (and mother, and indirectly, us, his children) benefited from the program when he retired. Although many people with jobs were eligible to contribute to social security, millions were not. President Roosevelt knew he could not pass the social security bill without the votes of Southerners who controlled key Congressional committees. They were unwilling to support the bill if people of color, particularly agricultural workers were included. (7) The compromise was to create a system in which the benefits were specifically set up to exclude large numbers of people of color (and, incidentally, white women) by excluding jobs categories where they were concentrated such as agricultural and domestic workers. Many hundreds of thousands more people of color were in job occupations that qualified for social security, but earned too little to be able to participate. (8)

My father had secured a good job and was eligible for a housing loan because of affirmative action. Of course, he still had to find a house that could be both a shelter for his family and an investment. Like most white Americans of the period, he wanted to live in an up and coming white suburban neighborhood with good schools, no crime, and rising property values. Many Americans, however, were excluded from buying houses in precisely those kinds of neighborhoods because they were not white males. People of color and unmarried women were not shown properties in those neighborhoods, government VHA and FHA loan policies discouraged loans to them, banking redlining policies denied them loans, and many real estate agents participated in exclusionary real estate covenants--all of which gave my father and other white males like him with solid jobs noncompetitive access to affordable and good quality suburban housing.

For example, the FHA specifically channeled loans away from the central city and to the suburbs and their official handbook even provided a model “restrictive covenant” to prospective white homebuyers and realtors. (9) The FHA and the VA financed more than $120 billion worth of new housing between 1934 and 1962, but less than 2 percent of this real estate was available to nonwhite families. (10) Some people of color did buy houses during this period but they were often restricted to living in poorer, racially segregated neighborhoods with less adequate schools, infrastructure, and community services. The initial investment that a Black family made either did not grow, or grew at a far less substantial rate than that of their white counterparts.

In addition, the federal home mortgage interest tax deduction meant that the government subsidized my father’s purchase of a house at the direct expense of everyone who did not have affirmative action programs or other means to help them buy a house and therefore were renters. This provided my father additional tens of thousands of dollars of support from the government over his adult lifetime. Sociologists Oliver and Shapiro estimate that these affirmative action programs for white men have cost the current generation of African Americans alone approximately $82 billion. (11)

The results of all of this affirmative action provided my family with more than just financial benefits. For me, specifically, I was able to go to a public school with many advantages directed at me as a white male. These special programs included heavy investments in science programs, sports programs, college preparatory classes, and leadership programs. There were no students (or teachers) of color at my school so these advantages were only for white people. And most of these programs were designed for the boys: girls were discouraged from participating or straightforwardly refused the opportunity.

Meanwhile the government was subsidizing suburban development and my family enjoyed parks, sports facilities, new roads, in fact, an entire infrastructure that, although the entire population paid taxes to support, was mostly directed to the benefit of white men and their families.

Of course, my mother and my sister enjoyed substantial benefits from all of this white male affirmative action -- as long as they stayed attached to a white male. They did not receive these benefits on their own behalf or because they were felt to deserve them. They received them insofar as they supported and were dependent on a white man like my father. Even though my father was verbally and emotionally abusive towards my mother, she did not contemplate leaving him partly because she did not have the independent financial means to do so nor did she have access to the kinds of affirmative action that he did.

Conversely, not all white men could take advantage of many of these benefits. If they were too poor or too poorly educated, if they were gay or had a disability, they were seriously limited in how much of these affirmative action programs they could take part in. In jobs, housing, and education these men were not welcomed, discriminated against, screened out, or denied access to many of the benefits my father was able to enjoy.

Growing up as the son of a white male in a society in which affirmative action programs for white men were abundant in every area of community life, I found this natural and inevitable. Of course white men receive all these benefits. I came to believe that because ours is a democracy and equal opportunity is the law of the land, white men must be successful because they were superior to all others. They must be smarter, they must work harder, my father must be a much superior person to all the other people around him except similarly endowed white men. No one ever qualified his success to me by describing all the advantages he had been given or labeled him an affirmative action baby. The prevalent assumption was that he had worked hard for, and therefore deserved, what he had, and those who didn’t have as much must not have worked hard enough.

My father made good, sound decisions in his life. He was intelligent and worked hard. He worked hard enough and was smart enough to take advantage of the social support, encouragement, and direct financial benefits that were available to him. Many white women, and men and women of color were just as smart and worked just as hard and ended up with far, far less than my father.

Affirmative action works: my father retired as a fairly wealthy and successful man at the age of 50. By that time I was already enjoying a new round of affirmative action programs.

My parents could afford private college tuition, but just in case they could not my father’s company offered scholarships for white males, the sons of employees. When I looked at private colleges I received the impression that these colleges also provided affirmative action programs -- most were only open to white people and they had very strong preferences for white males. In fact, at that time, some of those considered the best were only open to men.

There was a more specific affirmative action program offered at many of these schools--legacy admissions. Children of alumni were given special preferences. I was told that if I wanted to go to my father’s university, USC, that I had an excellent chance of getting in because my father had gone there regardless of my qualifications. (12)

I ended up attending Reed College in the mid 1960’s, a school that had no faculty of color, only one white woman faculty, and barely a handful of students of color until my senior year. During my college years I was strongly encouraged in my studies and urged to go on to graduate school, which I could see was even more clearly a white male preserve.

By the late 1960’s the United States was fully engaged in the Vietnam War. The U.S. government reinstated the draft and developed yet another affirmative action program for white males -- especially white males from affluent families--the college draft deferment. Proportionately very few students of color were attending college in those years and large numbers of white males were. One way to keep well off white male students from being drafted was to create a special policy that gave large numbers of them preferred status in the draft. This naturally resulted in fewer young men being eligible for the draft. So the armed forces lowered their standards to be able to recruit more men of color who had previously been rejected. The results of these policies were that in 1964 18.8% of eligible whites were drafted, compared to 30.2 % of eligible blacks. By 1967, when there was larger scale recruitment still only 31% of eligible whites were inducted into the military compared to 67% of eligible blacks. I was able to avoid the draft entirely because of affirmative action for white men and what Michael Eric Dyson has called the affirmative retroaction policies of the military that targeted men of color for recruitment. (13)

If I had wanted to serve in the armed forces, I could have used my education to get a non-combat job, or I could have applied to West Point or Annapolis and be assured that, as a white man, I wouldn’t have to compete with women or with most men of color for a position as an officer.

When I graduated from college I was presented with a wide variety of affirmative action options. In fact, corporate recruiters were constantly at my predominately white college offering us job opportunities. The affirmative action pension policies of my father’s company and the government social security system guaranteed that my father and mother had a decent and secure living through their retirement years. Many of my working class friends had to take any job they could get to support themselves or their parents or younger siblings. Since I had no one else to support I could pursue the career or profession of my choice.

When I eventually became involved in a long-term relationship, my partner and I could take advantage of another generation of affirmative action programs since I had such a secure financial base. For example, when we wanted to buy a house we were given preferences by banks for loans in the form of less paperwork, less extensive credit checks, and the benefit of the doubt about our financial capacity to maintain a house. We were given the understanding by our real estate agent that we were preferred neighbors in desirable communities, and were steered away from less desirable ones (meaning higher concentrations of people of color). In addition, because of my parent’s secure financial position, they could loan us money for a down payment, and co-sign our loan with us. (14) At every step of the way we were the recipients of a preference for well-off white males and their families. Subsequently, we could take full advantage of the home mortgage tax deduction -- the same tax benefit (public subsidy) for the housing of those who can afford to buy a house that my father had used. Poor and working class people, including a large percent of people of color, have not had the wealth nor the “creditworthiness” to buy homes and therefore don’t receive the substantial financial benefits the home mortgage interest tax deduction offers. (15)

Most of the government programs and institutional policies described above were not called affirmative action programs. Programs that benefit white men never are. They are just seen as race and gender neutral, even though most or all of the benefits accrue to white men. These programs were not contested as special preferences nor were the beneficiaries stigmatized as not deserving or not qualified.

Beginning in the 1970’s, official affirmative action programs were set up to overcome the effects of previous discrimination--to counter the huge advantages that white men had gained in the preceding decades. (16) They were intended to broaden the access to job related and educational opportunities that until then white men had primary or exclusive access to. Some white men were unhappy about official affirmative action programs from the beginning precisely because such programs challenged the preferences/affirmative action that white men have been receiving for so long. These challenges to affirmative action programs increased as small gains were made in ending white male preferences and creating more equal access to jobs, job training programs, and higher education for white women and men and women of color.

Uprooting Racism by Paul Kivel
If you buy the book here a portion of the sale goes to In Motion Magazine.
I know affirmative action works. Not just the recent, limited official programs called affirmative action, but the long history of programs designed to benefit a particular group. My family and I have benefited from such programs over the last fifty years. When I get together with other white men, if we are honest, each of us can share comparable stories of the educational, job, and housing advantages we have gained from such preference programs. What is in question is not whether affirmative action works, but whom it works for.

I would like to see a level playing field and equal opportunity for all people in this country. But I certainly haven’t seen or experienced one in my lifetime. Certainly it would be dishonest and hypocritical for me to claim that affirmative action should end just when we are trying to extend its benefits to people of color, who have mostly be denied those opportunities in the past. In fact, it would be racist on my part. To deny people of color access to the kind of affirmative action programs that I have so greatly benefited from would mean that I would be participating in a long history of efforts to keep economic benefits directed towards white people all the while blaming people of color for not succeeding.

Understanding how I have benefited from AA did not make me feel guilty or overwhelm me with shame (although occasionally I feel these and other emotions). I realized that I did not set up this system of benefits and preferences in favor of my father, myself, and other white men. I did not make the institutional and organizational policies that we benefited from.

My understanding did give me a feeling of responsibility -- responsibility to do something to end the injustice of racism. Specifically, it gave me the motivation to defend affirmative action programs and to think about how to use my financial and educational resources to fight for equal opportunity for all. This understanding led me to join with other white men to defend affirmative action.

When we gathered for meetings of Angry White Guys for Affirmative Action our goal was not to understand our privilege, but to use our status as white men to counter the racist attacks on communities of color. Working closely with organizations led by people of color, we mapped out a strategy to reach out to white people in the urban and suburban areas around us. We gave talks and conducted workshops, we wrote editorials, we stood on street corners with our banner, we conducted a walk of hope between urban and suburban churches and synagogues, we educated white people about the history of affirmative action and about the deceptive and manipulative tactics being used to attack it. And we talked about our own experiences as beneficiaries of affirmative action -- challenging the myth of a level playing field.

In this work we were following a long tradition of white people who have been allies to people of color in the struggle to end racism. Abolitionists, anti-imperialists, anti-lynching crusaders, Civil Rights movement activists -- we have a proud history of white people, including white men using their education, their experience, their money, their access, their voices, their hearts, and their minds to challenge racism.

I am not responsible for racism nor for the benefits that I have accrued through affirmative action programs for white men. But I am responsible for using those benefits to end injustice for the benefit of all people. Such action on my part is surely a responsible contribution to our society in acknowledgment of the benefits I have received from affirmative action.

Paul Kivel is a trainer, activist, and writer living in Oakland, CA. He is the author of several books including Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice which received the Gustavus Myers award for Human Rights in 1996. His most recent books are Boys Will Be Men: Raising Our Sons for Courage, Caring, and Community and I Can Make My World a Safer Place: A Kid’s Book about Stopping Violence.

Paul Kivel can be reached at pkivel@mindspring.com. Further resources can be found at www.paulkivel.com.

Further reading:

  • Brodkin, Karen. How Jews Became White Folks & What That Says About Race in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998.
  • Conley, Dalton. Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.
  • Kivel, Paul. Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society, 1996.
  • Lipsitz, George. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.
  • McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies.” Wellesley, MA Center for Research on Women, 1988.
  • Mills, Ncolaus. Debating Affirmative Action: Race, Gender, Ethnicity, and the Politics of Inclusion. New York: Delta, 1994.
  • Oliver, Melvin L. & Thomas M. Shapiro. Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • Roediger, David R. Black on White: Black Writers on What it Means to Be White. New York: Schocken Books, 1998.

© Paul Kivel 2000

Published in In Motion Magazine February 10, 2002.

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