In my reading today of Nixon’s Civil Rights, Dean Kotlowski discusses Richard Nixon’s approach towards racial discrimination in the area of employment.
When Nixon was Vice-President under Dwight Eisenhower, he favored a conciliatory approach towards businesses that had federal contracts, one that preferred persuasion over heavy-handed pressure in the area of hiring minorities. As President, however, Nixon’s policy in 1969 was to require “federally assisted contractors on projects exceeding $500,000 to show good faith in hiring minorities” (page 104). Kowlowski states that “Iron trade unions [in five Pennsylvania counties] working on federal projects would have to employ between 5 and 9 percent blacks in 1970, with ranges increasing each year thereafer”, and that “only employers who declined to show good faith in meeting…targets faced losing their contracts” (page 104). This was Nixon’s Philadelphia Plan, which was an alteration of Lyndon Johnson’s Philadelphia Plan. While many critics of this policy accused Nixon of mandating quotas, Kotlowski distinguishes between goals (which Nixon wanted) and quotas. Whereas quotas “compelled employers to hire a set ratio of African-Americans” and punished them immediately if they did not, goals “simply established numerical ranges for minority employment” and sanctioned those who failed to make a “good faith effort” (pages 102, 105). Personally, I wonder if goals can be meaningful without quotas, for how could one tell if a business is complying, if not by the fact that it is actually hiring a certain percentage of African-Americans?
Nixon as President believed that African-Americans should have more than equal opportunity. Nixon said (and these are his words) that “people in the ghetto have to have more than an equal chance”, and he promised to give “everybody an equal chance at the line and then giving those who haven’t had their chance, who’ve had it denied for a hundred years, that little extra start that they need so that it is in truth an equal chance” (page 106). There were a variety of factors behind Nixon’s position. There was Nixon’s support for the underdog, which was rooted in his own rags-to-riches story. There was a fear of riots, which were linked with the disadvantaged economic status of many African-Americans. And the scarcity of construction workers increased the cost of housing (and my guess is that this is because more houses were not being built, meaning that the supply of houses was less than the demand for them), so Nixon wanted to undermine the “restrictive practices of construction unions” (Nixon’s words), one of them being racial discrimination.
Kotlowski wrestles with whether or not politics had anything to do with Nixon’s policy. Nixon’s policy was politically-counterproductive in that it hindered Nixon from winning the support of southern conservatives and blue-collar workers. At the same time, it did help unite the liberal and conservative wings of the Republican Party, for both Nelson Rockefeller and also Ronald Reagan opposed unions’ discrimination against African-Americans. Kotlowski states that Nixon was not inclined to extend the Philadelphia Plan past 1969, but that his subordinates continued to fight employment discrimination.