Many people wonder how long affirmative action has been hanging around. The answer is longer than many would like to acknowledge. For one to understand the history, it would call for us having a serious conversation concerning its use in the very beginning. It was not used for the purpose of helping blacks and marginalized people get an even break. The affirmative action was used to assist the whites and Europeans to get further ahead of the overwhelming number of slaves being brought to this country by a people who were led by the desire to have more money, greed and privilege.

It matters not if you are black or white, Democrat, Republican or Independent, the use of that word will make some of our eyes get wide and ideas begin to circulate in the head. The phrase conjures up either negative vibes or positive ones. Many Americans act as if it is something that began recently. Many respond as if it was created to give blacks a chance to catch up with the white people of this country educationally, physically and financially. That conclusion should concern us greatly, because that is a great falsehood.

Affirmative action first began in the 17th century when African slaves replaced European indentured servants. This was done mainly in Virginia and Maryland. These Europeans were given the position of policing the growing slave population. These Europeans won these rights by agreeing to help control the slaves. They won entitlements and opportunities from the planters of mainly tobacco crops. During that time, “entitlements” had a good feel to it because of the individuals receiving the benefits. That is 17th century affirmative action or racial preference used in favor of whites.

After the Civil War ended, General Sherman suggested that the federal government divide the available free land and give the free slave 40 acres and a mule as reparations for his loss and abuse. Instead of doing what seemed to be equitable and fair, the Washington crew decided to give the plantation owners up to $300 for each slave that was set free. The slaves were set free with only the clothes on their backs while the already rich farmers added to their healthy bank accounts. And yet today we have many people who cry foul when a few blacks are given an opportunity to attend a school of their choice because of the damage that was done to them and their families during slavery or as a result of slavery and the devastating effects that it had on the slave families.

Affirmative action continued to be used to benefit whites throughout history, and if you will follow many of the hiring practices, even in the Rome and Floyd County areas, you will know that it still exists as a practice. I ceased to be amazed at how excited people get when an overly-qualified black person gets a meaningful position like Chief of Police or Mayor of Rome. These are long overdue actions that should have taken place many years ago. Affirmative action in favor of whites hindered blacks from getting deserved and hard-earned positions. I remember how agonized my employers were when it became my turn to be appointed chairperson over the English Department. They could not justify not appointing me to that position. My white coworker said to my employer, “Mister, you have no choice but to do the right thing.” Hesitantly he made the appointment.

Was the 1790 Naturalization Act which permitted only “free white persons” to become naturalized citizens, an affirmative action? Yes, it was, because this act opened the doors to European immigrants but not others. Only citizens could vote, serve on juries, hold office and in some cases, hold property. Affirmative action has always operated with a stronghold throughout the American history in favor of whites.

I am not just speaking of long ago, but in this century Alien Land Laws were passed in California and other states. This law reserved farm land for white growers by preventing Asian immigrants, ineligible to become citizens, from owning or leasing land. Immigration restrictions further limited opportunities for nonwhite groups. Racial barriers to naturalized U.S. citizenship were not removed until the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952, and white racial preferences in immigration remained until 1965.

The myths need to stop. It is time to have an honest discussion about who benefited from the affirmative action. and to a degree they still do. The word is white privilege.

Willie Mae Samuel is a playwright and a director in Rome.

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