Professor Orlando Patterson’s Discussion of Affirmative Action

On November 1, 2019, Orlando Patterson, the John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, made a presentation about human rights and freedom at a meeting of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights.{1]

Now he has set forth views on the related subject of affirmative action in a New York Times review of a book on that subject—The Affirmative Action Puzzle: A Living History From Reconstruction to Today by Malvin L. Urofsky.[2]

Patterson’s prelude to this review says, “For two and a half centuries America enslaved its black population, whose labor was a critical source of the country’s capitalist modernization and prosperity. Upon the abolition of legal, interpersonal slavery, the exploitation and degradation of blacks continued in the neo-slavery system of Jim Crow, a domestic terrorist regime fully sanctioned by the state and courts of the nation, and including Nazi-like instruments of ritualized human slaughter. Black harms and losses accrued to all whites, both to those directly exploiting them, and indirectly to all enjoying the enhanced prosperity their social exclusion and depressed earnings made possible.” These long years, he suggests, were a period of white-affirmative action. (Emphasis added.)

Patterson then says, “white affirmative action was first developed on a large scale in the New Deal welfare and social programs, and later in the huge state subsidization of suburban housing — a major source of present white wealth — blacks . . . were systematically excluded, to the benefit of the millions of whites whose entitlements would have been less, or whose housing slots would have been given to blacks in any fairly administered system. In this unrelenting history of deprivation, not even the comforting cultural productions of black artists were spared: From Thomas “Daddy” Rice in the early 19th century right down to Elvis Presley, everything of value and beauty that blacks created was promptly appropriated, repackaged and sold to white audiences for the exclusive economic benefit and prestige of white performers, who often added to the injury of cultural confiscation the insult of blackface mockery.” (Italic emphasis in original; bold emphases added.)

Subsequently the nonwhite version of affirmative action, Patterson continues, was begun by “the American state and corporate system” in the middle of the last century to tackle “this inherited patterns racial injustice , and its persisting inequities.” A comprehensive account of this “nonwhite version” is provided in the Urofsky book except for his failure to include the U.S. military, which has the best record of nonwhite racial integration and achievement. Urofsky distinguishes between “soft affirmative action. . . aimed at removing barriers only,” which he favors, and hard affirmative action, which attempts positive actions to make observable betterment of the excluded group” and which he does not favor even though it admittedly does not work. As President Lyndon Johnson said in a 1965 commencement address at Howard University, “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.” [3] (Emphases added.)

According to Patterson, Urofsky also points out the success of President Nixon’s Machiavellian “Philadelphia Plan,” which had minority business set-asides and insistence on craft unions acceptance of blacks and which resulted in “major improvements for blacks at all levels of the economy, to the applause of nearly every black leader.” But this Nixon program also was an important part of his Southern strategy “to shatter the bond between white working-class union members and the Democratic Party” and to create a new bond between those workers and the Republican Party.

In conclusion, Patterson says this nonwhite affirmative action “is now an integral part of the moral, cultural, military, political and economic fabric of the nation. Its businesses, educational system and political directorate have largely embraced it and the . . . [Supreme Court] undoes it at the cost of its own legitimacy.” This is so even though it is questionable whether this nonwhite affirmative action “could have solved all or even most of the problems of blacks, women and other disadvantaged groups. That surely must await more fundamental structural and political changes that might address America’s chronic postindustrial inequality and labor precariousness.” 

Conclusion

Characterizing the many decades of slavery and Jim Crow measures as “white affirmative action” was a new labeling for this blogger, but it makes sense. It also provides another justification for the more recent era of nonwhite affirmative action.

This blogger also was not familiar with Presdient Johnson’s commencement address at Howard University, which will be discussed in a subsequent post.

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[1] U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Meeting, November 1, 2019), dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 20, 2020); Reactions to U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Meeting, November 1, 2019, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 21, 2020) 

[2] Patterson, Affirmative Action: The Uniquely American Experiment, N.Y. Times Book Review (Feb. 23, 2020) 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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