Constructing Affirmative Action: The Struggle for Equal Employment Opportunity

Constructing Affirmative Action: The Struggle for Equal Employment Opportunity

Constructing Affirmative Action: The Struggle for Equal Employment Opportunity

Constructing Affirmative Action: The Struggle for Equal Employment Opportunity


Between 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson defined affirmative action as a legitimate federal goal, and 1972, when President Richard M. Nixon named one of affirmative action's chief antagonists the head of the Department of Labor, government officials at all levels addressed racial economic inequality in earnest. Providing members of historically disadvantaged groups an equal chance at obtaining limited and competitive positions, affirmative action had the potential to alienate large numbers of white Americans, even those who had viewed school desegregation and voting rights in a positive light. Thus, affirmative action was -- and continues to be -- controversial.

Novel in its approach and meticulously researched, David Hamilton Golland's Constructing Affirmative Action: The Struggle for Equal Employment Opportunity bridges a sizeable gap in the literature on the history of affirmative action. Golland examines federal efforts to diversify the construction trades from the 1950s through the 1970s, offering valuable insights into the origins of affirmative action--related policy. Constructing Affirmative Action analyzes how community activism pushed the federal government to address issues of racial exclusion and marginalization in the construction industry with programs in key American cities.


Richard Nixon wanted to be remembered as a “civil rights president” rather than “Tricky Dick” of the popular imagination. Historians such as Joan Hoff and, more recently, British scholar Kevin Yuill have nearly achieved that goal for him, noting the advances made in equal employment opportunity during the early 1970s. But the reality is that most of these advances were made in the courts, where Lyndon Johnson–era programs and laws were being challenged and upheld.

When pressed to defend Nixon’s actual civil rights accomplishments, these modern apologists point to one program: the Philadelphia Plan. They recount how the president, with his Department of Labor deputies George Shultz and Arthur Fletcher, shepherded this first affirmative action program through a heated congressional battle and challenges in the federal courts. But they minimize the real history of the Philadelphia Plan, which was developed by Johnson appointees after years of experimental attempts to integrate the skilled building construction trades. Nixon implemented the Philadelphia Plan in order to appear to be committed to civil rights, but he abandoned it after the hard-hat revolts less than six months later. In fact, Nixon was not a “civil rights president” at all; by 1971 his black appointees were resigning in disgust, and he even appointed a secretary of labor with a plan to resegregate vocational training.

I wrote Constructing Affirmative Action to tell the real story of Richard Nixon and civil rights. But I also wrote it to tell quite another story altogether: the integration of the building construction trades. In the 1950s blacks working in building construction were typically relegated to unskilled or residential work, while the skilled commercial construction work—with its lucrative wages—was done almost exclusively by whites. After years of struggle, the skilled unions had gained control of the hiring process, but their membership—despite increasing calls for reform by their leaders—remained racially segregated. With the postwar increase in federal construction spending, specifically urban renewal programs, the prospect of all-white skilled work crews erecting structures in predominantly black neighborhoods was one of the most obvious—and galling—exam-

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