After Donald Trump’s presidential victory, many left-leaning politicians and commentators started considering what sort of message would help them regain political power. Given the clear racial subtext to the 2016 campaign—Trump stereotyped Mexican immigrants and Muslim families, and Hillary Clinton spoke openly about systemic racism—and who ultimately won, some concluded that Democrats should stop using so-called “identity politics” to try to win elections. The argument went that this approach would alienate some largely white swaths of the country that would be crucial to the party’s future electoral success.
If politicians heed this call, one potential result could be that they would move toward policies that direct attention away from race and instead focus broadly on economic mobility. The past 100 years, however, hold a few lessons about the consequences of enacting intentionally or unintentionally race-blind policies.
In his book When Affirmative Action Was White, the Columbia University political scientist Ira Katznelson discusses some examples of economics-oriented policy initiatives that favored white people, including many that were ostensibly race neutral. Most of these colorblind policies were developed as part of the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal programs, and were designed to help lift America out of the Depression. Social Security, minimum-wage laws, and the G.I. Bill are all examples of legislation written with language that wasn’t explicitly discriminatory. And yet, these policies did not work for everyone: It was primarily white Americans who were able to benefit from them once they were put in place.