Richard Nixon and the Origins of Affirmative Action

By Kotlowski, Dean J. | The Historian, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Richard Nixon and the Origins of Affirmative Action

Kotlowski, Dean J., The Historian

"Incredible but true," declared Fortune magazine at the time of Richard M. Nixon's death in 1994. "It was the Nixonites who gave us employment quotas."(1) Until recently, many scholars and journalists have credited Democratic Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson with initiating affirmative action. Yet it was a Republican president who first sanctioned formal goals and time frames to raze barriers to minority employment. Nixon, recalled civil rights leader James Farmer, was the strongest president on affirmative action--up to that point."(2)

Scholars remain divided over how much credit Nixon deserved for affirmative action and what factors nudged him toward this controversial policy. In Presidential Studies Quarterly, J. Larry Hood traced the president's policies to his personal belief in racial equality. In Nixon Reconsidered, Joan Hoff agreed, reminding readers of "Nixon's long-standing commitment to minority hiring" dating back to his service in the Eisenhower administration.(3) Finding little principle behind Nixon's policy, Hugh Davis Graham emphasized the president's political motive, enigmatic personality, ambivalence to civil rights, and decentralized policymaking. Graham also noted that Nixon moved away from affirmative action as the 1972 election approached. While all of these scholars credited Nixon's liberal subordinates with helping to shape affirmative action, Graham went furthest in crediting administration officials with the policy's achievements.(4)

Reconciling the twists and turns in Nixon's affirmative action policy proves easier when one recognizes the obvious: Richard Nixon was a very complex man. As his closest aides have pointed out, the president could be cynical, manipulative, and realistic, and alternately idealistic, courageous, and pugnacious. Nixon's changing domestic policy and evolving staff structure reflected his intricate personality. This article contends that Nixon's opposition to discrimination, his pragmatism, and his political instincts all influenced his approach to affirmative action. Weighing philosophical and practical considerations against political opportunism, Nixon sometimes favored and sometimes resisted this policy. As vice president, he learned the importance of fighting racial bias in the workplace. As president, several factors, including the need to open construction work to competitive labor, led him to approve the "Philadelphia Plan," an affirmative action program for the building trades. Yet when that plan hindered Nixon's courtship of white blue-collar workers, he backtracked. With Nixon's fragile support, affirmative action developed in fits and starts, and sporadic presidential interest freed bureaucrats to apply their own standards, with varying degrees of success.(5)

The practice of affirmative action developed neither at once nor according to a single grand scheme. Rather, it emerged gradually as the federal government moved to open the lily-white building trades to minorities. Federal action to end discrimination in the building trades was long overdue. To maintain a scarce labor supply (and high wages), construction unions traditionally had restricted admission to their apprenticeship programs to friends or family members, a practice that stung minority groups. To be sure, the AFL-CIO leadership espoused principles of non-discrimination and equality of opportunity and officially supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawing job bias. Yet many union locals, particularly in the building trades, refused to admit African Americans. "When I was a plumber," AFL-CIO President George Meany once remarked, "it never occurred to me to have niggers in the union."(6) By 1967, African Americans comprised just eight percent of construction trade unionists, and the plumbing, sheet-metal, electrical, asbestos, and elevator trades had only 1,400 black members out of a brotherhood of 330,000.(7)

The federal government moved slowly against segregation in the building trades. …

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