Proponents of affirmative action lump it in with other victories of the civil rights movement, Tanner Colby notes:
The phrase “affirmative action” first appeared in President Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925, which called for “affirmative action” to be taken to ensure people were employed “without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” And Lyndon Johnson is usually given credit for enunciating the principles of affirmative action when he called for reparative economic justice for black America in his famous “To Fulfill These Rights” speech at Howard University, saying, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and say, ‘You are now free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”
But neither Kennedy nor Johnson ever implemented anything resembling what we now describe as affirmative action — i.e., quotas and set-asides — on the economic front, largely because the Democratic party was beholden to Big Labor, whose unions were adamantly opposed to quotas of any kind.
The way in which affirmative action was implemented speaks volumes about the motivations behind it. Nixon’s first task upon taking office was to resolve the impasse between civil rights leaders and skilled labor unions. In his first address to Congress, the president announced what became known as the Philadelphia Plan, which imposed goals and timetables for race-based hiring in the city’s unions. Prior to the Philadelphia Plan, under Kennedy and Johnson, affirmative action had always meant to take affirmative action to ensure discrimination was not taking place. Now, affirmative action meant imposing racial preferences and quotas. After its launch in Philadelphia, the program was rolled out in dozens of other cities nationwide. In the meantime, the White House was busy stuffing racial-preference policies into the federal bureaucracy wherever it could find room. In the spring of 1969, Nixon expanded affirmative action mandates from government procurement contracts and applied them to any institution that received any federal funds of any kind, which brought universities, research institutions — basically everyone — into the fold. Then Nixon issued Executive Order 11478, which called for affirmative action in all government employment, bringing huge numbers of black workers onto the federal payroll. Racial preferences, as we know them today, were now sewn into the fabric of the country.
And affirmative action “worked.” The most immediate and measurable impact was in government hiring. Blacks had always enjoyed relatively better employment prospects in the public sector, and affirmative action greatly enhanced that. By the early 1970s, 57 percent of black male college graduates and 72 percent of black female college graduates were employed in government positions. The private sector also went on a hiring binge. Impelled by the fear of more urban riots, the Fortune 500 launched a flotilla of affirmative action programs aimed at getting as many black hires in the door as quickly as possible. After decades of economic stagnation, between 1969 and 1972, total black income rose from $38.7 billion to $51.1 billion, a 32 percent jump in just three years.
Richard Nixon put more money in black wallets than JFK, LBJ, and MLK combined. While they never embraced Nixon, black Americans and their white liberal champions fell in love with quotas and set-asides. Many of the moderate and liberal Republicans in the White House had faith in affirmative action, too. Nixon’s Secretary of Labor George Shultz, upon his nomination, acknowledged that black unemployment was the most pressing labor issue in the country, and believed that the Philadelphia Plan would offer a useful model for cities across the country. Even some conservatives were on board. Prominent Nixon-supporter William F. Buckley called for “a pro-Negro discrimination” in order to address the problem of unemployment.
The president, however, felt differently. Just weeks after calling the Philadelphia Plan “historic and critical” in Congress, Nixon jotted a note to domestic aide John Erlichman calling it “an almost hopeless holding action at best,” saying “let’s limit our public action and $ — to the least we can get away with.” Nixon’s primary concern in the Oval Office was to make his mark as a great foreign policy leader. Vietnam, China, the Soviet Union — these were his main preoccupations. He wanted the home front happy and humming along so that he’d be free to spend his political capital overseas, and his approach to the volatile issues of race reflected this. Staunch opposition to school busing and fair housing would appease suburban white voters. Affirmative action on the jobs front would appease middle-class black voters, end the riots threatening corporate America’s bottom line, and generally keep the racial question tamped down long enough for Nixon to win re-election in ’72.