Updated: Jul 17
55% of White Americans believe that they are discriminated against because of their skin color (NPR, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health poll, 2017). One of the biggest complaints in modern history is Affirmative Action (race-based access to institutional resources and opportunities).
Let's explore the concept of "Affirmative Action" from a historical viewpoint.
1618: England’s Headright system offered 50 acres of land to any Europeans willing to cross the Atlantic and work that land for tobacco in Virginia in order to further England's wealth.
1640: Three enslaved individuals- an African, a Dutchman, and a Scotsman- escape their owner and run. All three are caught. The two White men were returned and given four additional years of servitude. The African, John Punch, was given a sentence of lifelong slavery.
1705: Virginia statute required masters to give White indentured servants 50 acres of land, 30 shilling, 10 bushels of corn, and a musket.
1705: Virginia passes the Virginia Slave Codes concurrently, which were laws that locked in the ability of White slave owners to beat and kill Black Africans enslaved to them without the threat of arrest or other judicial system penalties.
July 4, 1776: Congress signed the Declaration of Independence. Side note by Frederick Douglas (1852), “the rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you [white people], not by me [black people].” Yet, Douglas concludes his speech with hope, believing that racial equality will prevail eventually.
1785: The Land Ordinance Act, by Thomas Jefferson, provided a clearer system for putting formerly Native land into the hands of White settlers.
1790: Naturalization Act says that if you are White, you can become a citizen. You have access to loans, land, neighborhoods.
1862: The Homestead Act allowed people to claim land for free in the rapidly expanding U.S. That land went to White people disproportionately, because of the initial exclusion and racist practices in the distribution of the land. Some Black families did temporarily benefit, especially farmers, at first. Most of them would end up losing their farm lands due to the 20th century racism within the USDA.
January 16, 1865: “40 Acres and a Mule”- The first attempt at a form of reparations for slavery occurred shortly after the Civil War. General Sherman signed an executive order allocating forty acres to some formerly kidnapped and enslaved Africans in some places. By fall of 1865, Andrew Johnson had confiscated the land from those Africans and returned it to White former slave owners.
1929: Stock market crashes under Hoover, 5,000 banks close, people lose their jobs.
1932: Roosevelt promised The New Deal- a raft of initiatives that go on to build massive middle-class wealth in the U.S.
1934: Federal Housing Administration was created. This allowed many more people to be able to purchase homes in the U.S. with much lower down payments, lower mortgage rates, and extended terms. Homeownership went from 30% to 70%, with almost all houses begin built in the suburbs.
*Side note: home ownership is one of the most powerful ways to build wealth to pass on to the next generation. However, famous government practices of redlining (which was the practice of giving FHA loans to people in predominantly White neighborhoods and communities and refusing to loan to Black people in mostly-Black areas, which were generally the only places Black people were allowed to live) blocked home ownership for Black families.
Between 1933 and 1962, the government would give out $120 billion in home and business loans. The inflation calculation says the impact of that $120 billion today would be $2,150,949,618,320.61. 98% of that aid and wealth distribution went to White people.
1935: Social Security was created. It helps all Americans now, but when it was first created it excluded domestic and agricultural workers (disproportionately people of color). 2/3 of all African American workers were blocked from Social Security until the 1950’s.
1944: GI Bill of Rights sent veterans of WWII, Korean, and Vietnam wars to college. On paper, the GI Bill made no racial distinctions.
In the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, the education climate was segregated. Men who were not White were only allowed to attend HBCU’s, and there were not a lot of them. The HBCU’s couldn’t meet the demand of those coming home who wanted to partake of the GI Bill. White schools wouldn’t let them in, so White people coming home had access to government-sponsored education when Black and Brown people did not. So when people came home and met with a job counselor, White men came home and became builders, welders, and mechanics. Men of color came home and became dishwashers and cooks. This permeates multiple generations.
In White families, money travels differently. It travels from parent to adult child, in the form of helping with a down payment, or tuition, or book money. In families of color, because of this history, money travels from adult child to parent.
1964: Civil Rights Act signed into law that carries penalties for discrimination against people because of their race, gender, disability, ethnic origin, or age. Businesses that received federal funding under this act were prohibited from using aptitude tests and other discriminatory criteria in hiring practices.
Based on what we just learned, Affirmative Action, sans the official name, began in 1705 when you received 40 acres of land, 30 shillings, 10 bushels of corn and a musket solely because the color of your skin was White and for no other reason. The lasting economic and wealth-distribution impacts of this initial Affirmative Action legislation is too great not to notice. At $171,000, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family ($17,150) in 2016 (Examining the Black-white wealth gap, Brookings, 2020).
Too many people will dismiss these facts as “history that doesn’t impact me today”, a thought that people who are privileged have ability and access to think because our culture allows white people to see themselves as individuals and to distance themselves from history and it’s impacts. I encourage you to really think through what history is telling us in regard to equitable and fair practices through affirmative actions.
Biewen, J & Hayes-Greene, D. (2018). White affirmative action, Scene on Radio Seeing White podcast series, episode 13 and Racial Equity Institute (recording of a training).
Examining the Black-white wealth gap, Brookings, 2020
Freedom for all? What the fourth of July really means, Peace and Justice Center, 2014.
NPR, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health poll, 2017.
Slavery and the making of America, thirteen.org
The Truth Behind ’40 Acres and a Mule’, PBS