Anti-Racism 101

09 White Affirmative Action


In 1618 the Headright system, created in England to address the labor shortage in Virginia, gave people fifty acres of land, or two units which would be a hundred acres of land, for anyone willing to cross the Atlantic ocean or pay for someone to cross it and populate the colonies. Free land, only for Europeans.

In 1705, a statute in Virginia required masters to give white indentured servants fifty acres of land, thirty shillings, ten bushels of corn and a musket. Unlike the forty acres and a mule for some black people freed from slavery 160 years later, this gift of land, cash and food for freed, white indentured servants, was not overturned.

That same year (1705), the House of Burgesses passed the Virginia Slave Codes. Those laws locked in a brutal system of white supremacy by giving slave owners sweeping rights to control and even torture the African people they owned, and making it illegal for black people to employ white people. These two legislative moves, the Slave Codes and the payments for white indentured servants, drove a hard wedge between poor white and poor black people, who had sometimes joined forces against the white elite.

In 1785 the Land Ordinance Act was passed. We had been taking Native land for over a century, by any means necessary, and distributing it. And it was a very informal process but it came with some problems like border disputes and overlapping claims. The Land Ordinance Act provided a clearer system for putting formerly Native land into the hands of white settlers. Six hundred forty acres, at a dollar an acre, was part of the law that helped to build a nation of white landowners. And each township had one unit of land set aside for public education-designed to serve white children, not enslaved African children or Native Americans.

The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed people to claim land for free in the rapidly-expanding United States. At first the Act excluded the vast majority of black people in the U.S., because you had to be a citizen to participate and enslaved people were not eligible for citizenship until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The Homestead Act ultimately transferred ten percent of all the land in the U.S. to regular citizens. That land went to white people disproportionately, because of that initial exclusion and because of racist practices in its distribution of the land. But many families of color did benefit, at least temporarily. The Homestead Act helps explain how African Americans came to own fifteen million acres of farmland by the early 20th century. Most of those black farmers would lose their land, though, in large part because of 20th-century racism within the U.S. Agriculture Department.

In 1929, eight months into President Hoover’s presidency, the stock market crashed. Five thousand banks closed and people were losing their jobs every day. Then FDR was elected in 1932, promising a New Deal, which resulted in a raft of initiatives that helped to build massive middle-class wealth in the US. If you wanted to buy a house before the Federal Housing Administration was created in 1934, you had to have fifty percent or more as a down payment in cash, and have it paid off usually in three to five years. So home ownership was really reserved for wealthy people. The FHA changed that, allowing for smaller down payments, low interest rates and the thirty-year mortgage we now take for granted, which created a demand for housing never seen before in this country. Homeownership more than doubled, mostly in the suburbs.

Every economist will tell you that for working- and middle-class people, home ownership is the most powerful way to build some kind of wealth to pass on to the next generation. But, famously, government policies pushed the practice of redlining, giving those FHA loans to people in predominantly white neighborhoods and communities, and refusing to loan to people in mostly-black areas—generally the only places black people were allowed to live. In the cities there were simply way fewer loans and less infrastructure and development. This destroyed the value of inner-city housing for decades, and increased and sustained the value of communities and homes that white people owned outside of the central city area.

Between 1933 and 1962, the FHA gave out over 120 billion dollars in home loans and business loans. The inflation calculation says the impact of that today would be the financial impact of $2,150,949,618,320.61, and over 98% of that went to white people.

Social Security helps all Americans now, but in 1935 when it came into being, it excluded domestic and agricultural workers, who of course were disproportionately people of color. Two-thirds of all African American workers were blocked from Social Security until the program was expanded in the 1950s.

One of the most massive policy initiatives ever undertaken by the U.S. government was the GI Bill of Rights in 1944. Among other things, the program sent veterans of World War Two, and later the Korean and Vietnam Wars, to college. On paper, the GI Bill made no racial distinctions. But the education climate in the 1940s, 50s and 60s was segregated. Men of color had to go to school at historically-black colleges and universities, and there were not a lot of them. Most were teachers’ colleges and agricultural schools, and they couldn’t meet the demand of people wanting to take advantage of a government-sponsored education. White schools didn’t let them in, so that meant white people came home from war and had access to government-sponsored education in ways that people of color didn’t have.

Millions of mostly-white men got higher education through the GI Bill and became engineers, scientists, doctors, teachers. The GI Bill also sent people to trade schools and helped veterans find jobs. But here again, men of color were at a disadvantage because of the military’s racist practices back then in assigning jobs within the military. When people came home they met with a local job counselor whose duty was to line up a civilian job that matched skills gained in the military. White men came home and became builders and welders and mechanics, and men of color came home and became dishwashers and cooks. And that has been a multi-generational situation for their families.

So when we say “why are people poor?” and talk about people’s choices and mindsets as if those are just how they think, we’re ignoring huge historical disparities that advantaged white people. From its passage in 1944 until 1971, the GI Bill spent ninety-five billion dollars on veterans, helping them buy homes, get vocational training, and start businesses. Southern lawmakers made sure it would be administered at the local level and would respect the “customs” of Jim Crow. Private mortgage lenders, employers and trade schools turned away black applicants, so even though some people of color did benefit from the GI Bill, the overall effect of the law was to vastly widen the wealth and opportunity gaps between white and black Americans.

Looking at all this history, it’s not hard to see why the median white household today has 13 times the assets—the wealth—of the average black household. In fact, because of this history, the average white family headed by someone who never finished high school has more generational wealth, more money, more assets, than the average black household headed by someone with a college degree. If affirmative action is race-based access to institutional resources and opportunities, it was legislated beginning in 1618. The above examples aren’t about anything except the color of your skin. Not merit, not hard work, not meeting the criteria-just being white.

-Summarized from transcript of episode 12 of the Seeing White podcast, with Deena Hayes-Greene of the Racial Equity Institute, and John Biewen

“Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it’s faced.” –James Baldwin

“Let’s acknowledge that the life that we live is in very real ways based on the exploitation of other people.” –John Biewen