Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action: The Pursuit of Racial Equality in an Era of Limits.
In Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action: The Pursuit of Racial Equality in an Era of Limits, Kevin Yuill wrestles with an interesting and underexplored question: "Why was President Richard M. Nixon the one to implement affirmative action and, even more, oversee its massive expansion?" (p. 235). In exploring this question, Yuill traces the evolution of affirmative action and, he contends, "provides a needed reinterpretation or reconsideration of a crucial yet still enigmatic period, president, and policy, challenging assumptions about what affirmative action really is, whom it really serves, and why it is still fiercely contested, as well as shedding new light on Nixon's actions and motives" (p. 5).
Nixon's role in the expansion of affirmative action is interesting given his use of political strategies that exploited political symbolism and demonized African Americans and other minorities. One could easily assume, given his history, that Nixon would oppose affirmative action policies. Nixon had clear political goals in this area. His "black capitalism" program, for example, certainly was an effort to increase black support for the Republican Party. Moreover, Yuill points out that affirmative action may well have been the most conservative option in an era of rising calls for integration. Nixon also could use affirmative action as a cover for his retreat from the Great Society programs of the 1960s. In that way, Nixon's "affirmative action ... began its official career as an elite response to an immediate crisis, as an effort to restore legitimacy to a specific area tainted by charges of institutional racism" (p. 4).
As vice president in the 1950s, Nixon chaired a study commission that called for greater black integration into the national economy, declaring it a waste of talent to not do so. However, Yuill sees a limit to how far Nixon was willing to go with affirmative action: Nixon's support of affirmative action was less about undoing the systemic problems that plagued the economic and employment aspirations of African Americans, and more about compensating those who had been harmed by the system. For Nixon, as Yuill points out, quoting Theodore Lowi, affirmative action was a federal policy that was aimed at "indemnifying damages rather than righting wrongs" (p. 5).
Yuill writes from the perspective of one who believes that scholars focusing on the implementation and expansion of affirmative action programs have emphasized the civil rights movement, the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, elements within the Democratic Party, and sympathetic federal bureaucrats; this, coupled with the challenges presented to the politico-socio system by the tumultuous decade of the 1960s, has led many to overlook the important role played by Nixon. Consequently, the book "stresses Nixon's actions in establishing the trajectory of affirmative action" (p. 2), placing him much closer to the center of the growth of affirmative action than many previous scholars.
Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action is divided into three parts. Part I--"From Myrdal to the Kerner Commission: The Rise and Fall of Barriers to Affirmative Action in the Postwar Period"--discusses the postwar intellectual opposition to affirmative action, affirmative action before Nixon, "the liberal crisis," problems with legitimating affirmative action as a policy, and affirmative action as a conservative option. Part II--"Richard Nixon: Liberal Anti-Hero"--examines the Philadelphia Plan and other kinds of affirmative action programs. Finally, Part III--"Affirmative Action and the New Liberalism"--traces how the president was able to use affirmative action as a bridge to the racial identity politics that he believed could help secure his reelection.
Yuill relies heavily on archival sources to help fill out the record on Nixon's role in the expansion of affirmative action. This represents one of the major strengths of the book. It is clearly well researched and takes us beyond what has been traditionally understood about this topic. Yuill avoids some of the pitfalls that may occur from relying too heavily on what has already been done.
Yuill points out how Nixon was able to shape the future of affirmative action by changing (through expansion) the black-white racial paradigm that framed civil rights politics. This strategy was part political strategy, part personal pique; Nixon came to be rejected by African Americans, a painful decline from the support he had enjoyed a decade earlier during his first run for the presidency. Yuill uncovers a memorandum in which the White House staff is instructed to shift its focus in presidential scheduling from "Blacks, youth, and Jews" ("just enough Blacks to show we care"), with the "concentration ... now to be on Italians, Poles, Mexicans, Rotarians, Elks, Middle Americans, Silent Americans, Catholics, etc." (p. 212).
Overall, Yuill is quite effective in tracking some of the changes in affirmative action through the Nixon presidency. Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action is an important contribution to understanding the evolution of this important public policy.
--Michael K. Fauntroy
George Mason University
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|Author:||Fauntroy, Michael K.|
|Publication:||Presidential Studies Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2009|
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