Kirkus Reviews QR Code


An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America

by Ira Katznelson

Pub Date: Aug. 22nd, 2005
ISBN: 0-393-05213-3
Publisher: Norton

A searching study of institutional inequality, much of it wrought, then as now, by the South.

“Three-fourths of us are disenfranchised; yet no writer on democratic reform says a word about Negroes.” Thus W.E.B. DuBois, writing in 1935 at the height of the New Deal. Katznelson (Political Science/Columbia Univ.) ponders how it could be that in the declining years of Jim Crow, the disenfranchisement of African-Americans could grow rather than weaken; most people in most regions had been affected in one way or another by the Depression, but in the South, where the average per capita income was half that of the rest of the country, black male workers earned a third of what even poor whites did, $565 a year against $1,535. Every other index was weighed against blacks: their health was poorer, their rate of homeownership lower, their acreage smaller and less productive. Aid programs organized by the various alphabet agencies of the New Deal did little to change the configuration, Katznelson writes, because the former slave states of the South fielded members on Capitol Hill who saw to it that relief went to white constituents. And because the Roosevelt administration was beholden to the South for votes, it did almost nothing to advance civil rights for African-Americans: “There would be no anti-lynching law on President Roosevelt’s watch,” Katznelson writes, “nor would racial hierarchies in the armed forces or federal agencies be disturbed in any basic way.” The gap would even widen following WWII, a time when other non-black minorities, such as Jews and Catholics, enjoyed “the extension of American pluralism and tolerance.” Katznelson does good service in excavating the archaeology of institutional racism, which, he notes, was brought about bit by bit, and not as a coherent program, and was thus easy to overlook.

Katznelson also deepens our understanding of the modern civil rights movement, which begins in the 1930s, not the 1960s: a thoughtful account for readers with an interest in that history.