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American Social Science and the Invention of Affirmative Action, 1920s–1970s

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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On June 4, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave the commencement address at Howard University, the federally sponsored historic black college. In the last decade, Americans had become increasingly aware of the civil rights movement in American politics and society, and of the injection of the issues revolving around civil rights for black Americans into the national public discourse. President Johnson took a new angle of attack to the problem of discimination against black Americans. Instead of focusing on the political and legal aspects of Jim Crow legislation, or the constitutional struggles for civil rights in education and voting, or the plight of black Americans in the South, he spoke – with great passion – about the social and economic circumstances of African Americans throughout the nation, including those trapped in the large urban ghettos in the Northeast, the Middle West, and the West. “In far too many ways American Negroes have been another nation: deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope,” he argued.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2001

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I thank Prof. Mary O. Furner, University of California, Santa Barbara; Prof. David M. Katzman, University of Kansas; Prof. Emeritus Henry D. Shapiro, University of Cincinnati; and Prof. Clarence E. Walker, University of California, Davis, for commenting on an earlier draft of this essay.

1. Harrington, Michael, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1962), passimGoogle Scholar.

2. Ignatiev, Noel, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995)Google Scholar, and Jacobson, Matthew Frye, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998)Google Scholar, are good examples of this literature. One need not accept all their assumptions and arguments to see the essential point these writers are making: that whiteness and group identity were functionally related in the American political system.

3. On President Johnson, see, for example, Caro, Robert A., The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982)Google Scholar, and Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon B. Johnson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990)Google Scholar; and Dallek, Robert, Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991)Google Scholar, and Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson, 1960–1973 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

4. Rainwater, Lee and Yancey, William L., eds., The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy, a Trans-Action Social Science and Public Policy Report (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1967)Google Scholar, reprints both the Howard University speech and Moynihan's pamphlet.

5. Moreno, Paul, From Direct Action to Affirmative Action: Fair Employment Law and Policy in America, 1933–1972 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997), 129 et seq.Google Scholar; and Belz, Herman, Equality Transformed: A Quarter Century of Affirmative Action (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers and the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, 1991), 142Google Scholar.

6. Cawelti, John, Apostles of the Self-made Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), makes this point wellGoogle Scholar.

7. Haskell, Thomas L., The Emergence of Professional Social Science: The American Social Science Association and the Nineteenth Century Crisis of Authority (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977)Google Scholar.

8. This is evident in the secondary literature of the democratic revolution of the 1830s and 1840s. See Cravens, Hamilton, “History of the Social Sciences,” in Historical Writing on American Science: Perspectives and Prospects, ed. Kohlstedt, Sally G. and Rossiter, Margaret (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986): 183207Google Scholar; and Cravens, Hamilton, Marcus, Alan I., and Katzman, David M., eds., Technical Knowledge in American Culture: Science, Technology, and Medicine Since the Early 1800s (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996), passimGoogle Scholar.

9. This is based on my work for a book in progress, “Designing Humanity: The Social and Behavioral Sciences in American Culture Since the Revolution.”

10. See, for example, Cawelti, , ApostlesGoogle Scholar, and White, Richard, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region 1650–1815 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11. McKenzie, R. D., The Metropolitan Community (1933; rept. New York: Russell and Russell, 1967), 69Google Scholar.

12. Park, Robert E., foreword to The Ghetto, by Louis Wirth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1928), viiiixGoogle Scholar.

13. Hinkle, Roscoe C. Jr and Hinkle, Gisela J., The Development of Modern Sociology: Its Nature and Growth in the United States (New York: Random House, 1954), 1843, esp. 2837Google Scholar.

14. It may be presumed that Franz Boas, the fiercely antiracist Columbia University anthropologist, was at least somewhat influential in persuading Thomas to take up such views. See Boas, Franz, The Mind of Primitive Man (New York: Macmillan, 1911)Google Scholar, passim. See also Stocking, George W. Jr, Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (New York: Free Press, 1968)Google Scholar; and Cravens, Hamilton, The Triumph of Evolution: The Heredity-Environment Controversy, 1900–1941 (1978; rept. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), chs. 4 and 5CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15. Thomas, William I. and Znanecki, Florian, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, 5 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1918)Google Scholar.

16. See my “History of the Social Sciences,” but also my The Triumph of Evolution and Before Head Start: The Iowa Station and America's Children (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993)Google Scholar. This argument — the centrality of the group and the unimportance of the individual in all social science theory and discourse of whatever kind — I am developing in a larger book on the history of the social and behavioral sciences in America with the working title “Designing Humanity: The Social and Behavioral Sciences in America.”

1 7. See Persons, Stow's acute Ethnic Studies at Chicago 1905–45 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), passim, esp. 28–98Google Scholar. An institutional history of the Chicago school that is quite useful is Bulmer, Martin, The Chicago School of Sociology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985)Google Scholar.

18. Wirth, , The Ghetto, quotations at 193 and 281Google Scholar.

19. Cravens, , Triumph of Evolution, 151274Google Scholar; and Furner, Mary O., Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1865–1905 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1975), passimGoogle Scholar.

20. On Park, and Reuter, , I have depended heavily upon Persons, Ethnic Studies, 60130Google Scholar.

21. Frazier, E. Franklin, The Negro Family in Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1932)Google Scholar, and The Free Negro Family: A Study of Family Origins Before the Civil War (Nashville: Fisk University Press, 1932), quotations at 72Google Scholar.

22. Frazier, E. Franklin, The Negro in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949)Google Scholar; Persons, , Ethnic Studies, 131–50, passimGoogle Scholar; and Vlasek, Dale R., “E. Franklin Frazier and the Problem of Assimilation,” in Ideas in America's Culture: From Republic to Mass Society, ed. Cravens, Hamilton (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1982), 141–55Google Scholar.

23. The four studies were Davis, Allison and Dollard, John, Children of Bondage: The Personality Development of Negro Youth in the Urban South (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 1940)Google Scholar; Frazier, E. Franklin, Negro Youth at the Crossways: Their Personality Development in the Middle States (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 1940)Google Scholar; Johnson, Charles S., Growing Up in the Black Belt: Negro Youth in the Rural South (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 1941)Google Scholar; and Warner, W. Lloyd, Junker, Buford H., and Adams, Walter A., Color and Human Nature: Negro Personality Development in a Northern City (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 1941)Google Scholar.

24. Frazier, E. Franklin, in his The Negro Family in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939), advanced the victimization argument in full battle dressGoogle Scholar.

25. Frazier, , Negro Youth at the Crossways, quotation at 29Google Scholar.

26. Warner, et al. , Color and Human Nature, quotations at 295 and 296Google Scholar.

27. Davis, and Dollard, , Children of BondageGoogle Scholar, and Johnson, , Growing Up in the Black BeltCrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28. Reid, Ira DeA., In A Minor Key Negro Youth in Story and Fact (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 1940), 21, 37Google Scholar; calculations mine.

29. Allison Davis, Burleigh B. Gardner, and Mary R. Gardner, directed by Warner, W. Lloyd, Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941), passimGoogle Scholar.

30. Davis, Allison and Havighurst, Robert J., Father of the Man: How Your Child Gets His Personality (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947)Google Scholar; and Kenneth Eells, Allison Davis, Robert J. Havighurst, Virgil E. Herrick, and Ralph W Tyler, under the chairmanship of Davis, Allison, Intelligence and Cultural Differences: A Study of Cultural Learning and Problem-solving (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951)Google Scholar. Quotation in Davis, Allison, Social-Class Influences upon Learning: The Inglis Lecture 1948 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948), 90Google Scholar.

31. For a useful history of this study, see Jackson, Walter A., Gunnar Myrdal and America's Conscience: Social Engineering & Racial Liberalism, 1938–1987 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990)Google Scholar.

32. The works that came directly through the Carnegie Corporation's sponsorship as studies that accompanied Myrdal's book were Herskovits, Melville J., The Myth of the Negro Past (New York: Harper and Row, 1941)Google Scholar; Johnson, Charles S., Patterns of Negro Segregation (New York: Harper and Row, 1943)Google Scholar; Sterner, Richard, The Negro's Share (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1944)Google Scholar; and Klineberg, Otto, ed., Characteristics of the American Negro (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1944)Google Scholar.

33. For a full discussion of this work in the human sciences, see Cravens, , Triumph of Evolution, ch. 5Google Scholar.

34. Gunnar Myrdal, with the assistance of Sterner, Richard and Rose, Arnold, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1944), quotations at 997, 1004, 1021, and 1024, respectivelyGoogle Scholar.

35. Parsons, Talcott, The Structure of Social Action, 2nd ed. (1937; rept. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1948)Google Scholar, was much more influential in its second than in its first edition, because its individualistic point of view, which came from Parsons's background as a laissez-faire classical economist before becoming a sociologist, was much more popular in the 1950s than in the 1930s and 1940s. See also Caplow, Theodore and McGee, Reece J., The Academic Marketplace (New York: Basic, 1958)Google Scholar, with an introduction by Jacques Barzun; and Amis, Kingsley, Lucky Jim: A Novel (New York: Viking, 1960)Google Scholar.

36. See, for example, President's Committee on Rights, Civil, To Secure These Rights (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1947)Google Scholar; Meier, August and Rudwick, Elliott, From Plantation to Ghetto, rev. ed. (1965; rept. New York: Hill and Wang, 1970), 251–98Google Scholar; Sitkoff, Harvard, The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954–1980 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981)Google Scholar; Jackson, , Gunnar Myrdal and America's Conscience, ch. 7Google Scholar; and Kluger, Richard, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), 700–78Google Scholar.

37. Jackson, , Gunnar Myrdal and America's Conscience, chapters 5 through 8Google Scholar, covers in considerable detail the implications of Myrdal's message and how widely and broadly it was received.

38. Phillips, Ulrich B., American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Slavery as Determined by the Plantation Regime (1918; rept. New York: P. Smith, 1952)Google Scholar, and Life and Labor in the Old South (Boston: Little, Brown, 1929)Google Scholar; and Morison, Samuel Eliot and Commager, Henry Steele, The Growth of the American Republic, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1942)Google Scholar. In general, see Meier, August and Rudwick, Elliot, Black History and the Historical Profession 1915–1980 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986)Google Scholar.

39. Pressly, Thomas J. provocatively argues that all the modern scholarly interpretations of the Civil War were first expressed by participants and contemporaries in the Civil War era (Americans Interpret Their Civil War [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949], passim)Google Scholar.

40. Tannenbaum, Frank, Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947), 93, viiix, passimGoogle Scholar.

41. Dollard, John, Miller, Neal E., Doob, Leonard W., Mowrer, O. H., and Sears, Robert R. et al. , Frustration and Aggression (New Haven: Yale University Press, for the Institute of Human Relations, 1939)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Barker, Roger, Dembo, Tamara, and Lewin, Kurt, Frustration and Regression: An Experiment with Young Children, Studies in Topological and Vector Psychology 2, University of Iowa Studies, Studies in Child Welfare, vol. 18, no. 1 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1941)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lippitt, Ronald, An Experimental Study of the Effect of Democratic and Authoritarian Group Structures, in Studies in Topological and Vector Psychology 2, University of Iowa Studies, Studies in Child Welfare, vol. 18, no. 1 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1940)Google Scholar; Lewin, Kurt and Lippitt, Ronald, “An Experimental Approach to the Study of Autocracy and Democracy: A Preliminary Note,” Sociometry 1 (1938): 292300CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lewin, Kurt, “Field Theory and Experiment in Social Psychology: Autocratic and Democratic Group Atmospheres,” American Journal of Sociology 45 (1939): 2649Google Scholar; Cravens, covers many of these developments in Before Head Start, 157–69, 188–91, 217–50Google Scholar; and Allport, Gordon, The Nature of Prejudice (New York: Macmillan, 1948)Google Scholar.

42. Elkins, Stanley M. discusses this literature, including Bettleheim, in Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959; rept. New York: Grossett and Dunlap, 1963), 81140Google Scholar

43. Meier, and Rudwick, , Black History (245–47 et seq.)Google Scholar, covers the reaction to Stampp, Kenneth M.'s The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-bellum South (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956)Google Scholar among white and black historians; indeed, their book should be followed carefully, for it is a bonanza of rigorously researched information, and I have relied upon it at many points in this essay.

44. Stampp, , Peculiar Institution, vii, 222Google Scholar.

45. Meier, and Rudwick, , Black History, 247–51Google Scholar.

46. Silberman, Charles, Crisis in Black and White (New York: Vintage, 1964), 7475Google Scholar.

47. Patterson, James T., Grand Expectations: The United States 1945–1974 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 375406Google Scholar, is but one general survey of the period that cites a handful of key secondary accounts about the developing civil rights issue in the 1950s. The literature on that problem is, in fact, immense.

48. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954); Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896); and Kluger, , Simple Justice, 700–10Google Scholar.

49. Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537–64, esp. 540–52.

50. Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483, esp. 486–96. Warren did cite Myrdal, An American Dilemma (1944), as well as the research of black psychologist Kenneth Clark, whose work with dolls and young black children suggested that black children in segregated schools had serious self-esteem problems that hampered their ability to compete in the larger world — hence the victimization thesis.

51. Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, 349 U.S. 294 (1955), is the Brown II decision. See Patterson, James T., Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)Google Scholar, passim, in my judgment a rather too sanguine argument. On this point, see in particular Steel, Lewis M., “Separate and Unequal, by Design,” Nation 272 (02 5, 2001): 2732Google Scholar.

52. Glazer, Nathan and Moynihan, Daniel Patrick, Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1963)Google Scholar, whose fundamental thesis was that there was no such thing as a melting pot: all groups remained apart from all others. Glazer, of course, wrote the introduction to the paperback edition of Elkins's book (cf. Elkins, , Slavery, ixxviGoogle Scholar).

53. Rainwater, and Yancey, , Moynihan Report, passimGoogle Scholar. See also Meier, and Rudwick, , Black History, 246–76Google Scholar.

54. A provocative treatment of what happened to civil rights is Edsall, Thomas Byrne, with Edsall, Mary D., Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991)Google Scholar.

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