An Analysis of Ira Katznelson’s Affirmative Action Proposals

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For political scientist Ira Katznelson (Columbia University), racism in the United States is not only a historical evil, it is a present-day, government-institutionalized evil. In his book When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, Katznelson argues that the only way for United States society to bridge the gap created between minorities, specifically African Americans, and whites is for the federal government to actively create policies that favor minorities. Katznelson justifies this claim by detailing the history of affirmative action in the United States, showing that even today, policies put in place during the time of the New Deal favored white citizens to such an extent that those policies created an insurmountable gap between blacks and whites.

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In his book’s conclusion, Katznelson lists several specific proposals that he believes the government should adopt in order to level the playing field, so to speak, between all races in the United States. Unlike other laws and policies, this would focus on quality of life and access to opportunity, rather than legal status or rights. While Katznelson proposes laudable ideals to balance the inequality created by government actions, his ideas fail to create a solution that is actually achievable because Katznelson does not take into account critical limitations, such as cost, necessary administration, and his policies’ parameters.

Katznelson’s proposals each address a specific government policy which has (both intentionally and unintentionally) caused economic and political disparity between different races. One proposal addresses the “lag in the Social Security system. For those excluded, Katznelson recommends that those people or their heirs be identified and offered one-time grants to be paid to retirement funds. Katznelson also presents the idea that tax credits could be introduced to make up for the lack of access to the minimum wage. Another idea is for the installation of subsidized mortgages, small business loans, and educational grants to make up for the unequal distribution of opportunities afforded under the GI Bill. In addition to these specific plans, Katznelson also suggests an alternative approach  focusing on poverty (whose root cause is inequality) and offering grants, subsidized mortgages, small business loans, job training, etc. to those who fall below the poverty line.

In his conclusion, Katznelson succinctly sums up his rationale. He writes that “public policies have been the most decisive instruments dividing Americans into different racial groups with vastly different circumstances and possibilities. In other words, current inequality based on race is the direct result of the federal government’s past actions. Katznelson believes, therefore, that the only effective response lies with countermeasures instituted by the federal government. As Katznelson phrases it, “when government is directly involved, claims for systemic compensation to match systemic harm become most compelling.

The greatest advantage to Katznelson’s propositions is that his ideas address very specific areas where the government failed in the past to live up to its responsibility to treat all of its citizens equally. The fourteenth amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1868, established equality under the law, meaning that the laws passed by the government must not discriminate against individual persons or groups of people. Throughout his book, Katznelson explains how this responsibility was not upheld by the federal government. Among other failures, the federal government allowed the creation of Jim Crow laws. It appeased Southern lawmakers by limiting African American access to benefits from the New Deal, especially by denying benefits to those in predominately African American occupations. Black economic advancement was hampered when Southern lawmakers blocked pro-labor movements in Congress, causing the Labor Movement to scale back and focus its attention away from a colorblind welfare state. The government again hampered African American opportunity following World War II through the passage of the GI Bill. Although allegedly the first piece of colorblind legislation, the Selective Service Readjustment Act (a.k.a. the GI Bill) provided opportunities for mass amounts of returning veterans to purchase homes, attend college, find jobs, etc. To appease Southern lawmakers again, however, the federal government decentralized the distribution of benefits, allowing regional, racist ideals to block African Americans from receiving the advantages promised in the bill. Additionally, African Americans had been underrecruited and underrepresented in the Second World War. This repression at the hands of the government continued in a vicious cycle.

Katznelson’s proposals attempt to halt that vicious cycle. They respond to former government failures in a very specific way, and in so doing, they speak to a sense of national justice. By tailoring Social Security to benefit African Americans, Katznelson responds to shortcoming in the New Deal. Tax credits could make up for the downfall of the labor movement to advance the economic position of most African Americans. Where the GI Bill failed to aid returning African American veterans, Katznelson’s idea would offer that same aid to African Americans today. In theory, the root cause of most of the inequality remaining today  the government  would also be the source of the solution.

That’s in theory, however, not in practice, and Katznelson remains vague on how several important points would function if implemented. First, Katznelson’s ideas would involve a massive amount of administrative effort. For his first idea, Katznelson proposed that the people initially excluded from Social Security benefits be identified and offered grants. Identifying all those people would require substantial time and effort from a large group of people. Additionally, Katznelson’s plan would require people to decide and keep track of the amount each grant recipient would receive. His next idea, tax credits to those who lacked access to minimum wage, would again require the identification and regulation of those to receive those credits. The government would also need some form of administration to oversee loans, grants, subsidized mortgages, etc. put in place to make up for the GI Bill failures. In short, it would require a vast amount of manpower to identify everyone that had been wronged and figure out the amount that would effectively compensate those people.

Because of the large administrative effort required and the cost of instituting all of these benefits, Katznelson’s measures would also be extremely expensive for the government to maintain. This begs the question: where would the money come from? Katznelson remains unclear on this count, although he does admit that these actions would cost a lot of money.

Perhaps most uncertain are the parameters to Katznelson’s ideas. Katznelson appeal is to extend affirmative action in order to achieve equal status for all races, thereby making affirmative action unnecessary. Exact equality of circumstances for all, however, would be impossible to achieve. Further, how exactly should the government determine the point when its measures have gone far enough? At what point can the government claim that affirmative action is rendered unnecessary? Katznelson’s ideas leave the definition of equality in the hands of the federal government, and it’s unlikely that the government could accurately measure equality.

For these reasons, Katznelson’s ideas would go a long way towards solving the problem of racism and economic disparity based on race in today’s society, but they are unfeasible, and therefore unsuited for United States policy. While Katznelson’s proposals focus on the areas that would most create greater equality, namely access to economic opportunities, they do not yet provide a practical solution. In order for Katznelson’s proposals to achieve what he claims they can, he would need to elaborate on ways to make these ideas work within the current confines of the government, which is not limitless.

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An Analysis of Ira Katznelson's Affirmative Action Proposals. (2020, May 01). Retrieved from