How Racism Explains America’s Class Divide and Culture of Economic Cruelty (An Excerpt from Under the Affluence)

The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Jeopardizing the Future of America (San Francisco: City Lights, 2015).

That the United States has long had a less complete system of social safety nets than most other industrialized nations is by now well established. Despite a brief period of substantial government intervention on behalf of the poor and unemployed from the 1930s through the 1960s, for the past forty-five years there has been a steady retrenchment in these efforts, fueled by a persistent and increasingly hostile rhetoric aimed at such programs and those whom they serve.

While the fact of less adequate safety nets is evident, a clear understanding of why the U.S. has been so much stingier than others in our provision for those in need is less clearly appreciated. Among the most prominent explanations, especially offered up by liberals and those of the political left, is the historical weakness of the labor movement and the lack of a labor-based party in the U.S. Stronger labor movements in Europe have been able to wrest concessions from the owners of capital and political elites that have been harder to come by here: more complete unemployment compensation, and better health care and educational guarantees most prominently. It’s an argument with significant historical resonance, but it still begs the question: why? Why has it been so much harder for labor unions to gain strength in the United States? Why has there been no effective labor party to develop in America, even as they have been quite common elsewhere? Why have working class consciousness and the political movements that typically flow from that consciousness been generally weaker here than in other nations?

Although there are likely several answers to these questions, there can be no doubt that among the biggest is the role of racism in dividing working class folks along lines of racial and ethnic identity. The development of the class structure in the United States has been, from the beginning, interwoven with the development of white supremacy. Indeed, a fair reading of those dual histories suggests that white supremacy and the elevation of whites as whites above persons of color, even when both shared similar class positions, has been critical in the shoring up of class division. Race, in other words, has been a weapon with which elites have divided working people from one another and prevented white working folks from developing a strong identification with their counterparts of color. Unless we address racial inequity and racism—and especially as lynchpins to the maintenance of economic inequity and class division—it will be impossible to solve these latter issues. Sadly, most Americans appear not to comprehend this truism. So, for instance, in a recent survey, while eighty percent claimed the government should focus “a lot” or “great deal” of effort on addressing economic inequality, only twenty-six percent said the same about the issue of racism and racial inequity, suggesting that the connections between the two are not well understood.

The Role of Race and Racism in the Dividing of the American Working Class

The history of whiteness as a wedge between working class persons, and as a key element in the perpetuation of economic inequity, goes back to the early colonies in the Americas. As theologian and scholar Thandeka explains, discussing the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries:

The legislators (in the Virginia colony) also raised the status of white servants, workers, and the white poor…Until then the European indentured servants had lived and worked under the same conditions as the African slaves, the chief difference in their status being that the Europeans’ servitude was contracted for a specified period whereas the slaves, and their progeny, served for life. In 1705, the assembly required masters to provide white servants at the end of their indentureship with corn, money, a gun, clothing, and 50 acres of land. The poll tax was also reduced. As a result of these legally sanctioned changes in poor whites’ economic position, they gained legal, political, emotional, social, and financial status that depended directly on the concomitant degradation of Indians and Negroes.

The decision to elevate poor and landless Europeans above blacks and indigenous peoples was a conscious one, made so as to vouchsafe the position of the elite relative to the masses, which position was threatened by the possibility of cross-racial, class-based rebellion. Collaborations between poor Europeans and Africans, and militant resistance to economic oppression, had frightened the Virginia planter class during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, leading to the passage of the above-mentioned laws granting so-called whites privileges previously denied to the poor. Fear of further cross-racial alliances led to the abolition of European indentured servitude altogether in the first decade of the eighteenth century, much as it had led colonial leaders in the British West Indies to halt the importation of Irish servants to the island of Nevis, due to previous rebellions against the elite fomented by a combination of poor Europeans and African slaves there.

To limit the prospects for working class and peasant-class consciousness across racial lines, colonial elites passed further laws requiring plantation owners to employ a certain number of whites for every African they held in bondage, thereby yoking white employment opportunities to the institution of slavery. Other laws barred blacks from certain trades altogether, in effect reserving those for whites, further linking the enslavement of blacks to the relative elevation of whites, even those without land (1) Still other laws required whites to serve on slave patrols and help control blacks, thereby creating the perception among even poor European peoples that they were members of one big team, along with the rich.

It was a powerful trick. After all, logic would suggest that poor and landless Europeans should have recognized the economic harm done to their own interests from enslavement. Obviously, if a plantation owner has to pay a white person to work on their farm but can force the black person to do it for free because he owns them, the employment and wage base for white workers is effectively undermined. But by way of these laws meant to create racialized status for poor Europeans (now and for the first time called white), elites managed to elevate such peasants just sufficiently to make their objective class interests literally pale in comparison to their racial ones.

It was this elevation of whiteness at the expense of class interests that helped convince most white southerners to support secession and the maintenance of the institution of slavery. Even though the wealthy were able to escape military service during the civil war if they owned a sufficient number of Africans—a class privilege one might expect to rankle poor whites who would have to take up the slack and risk their own lives to protect the power of the planter elite—working class whites typically fell in line, fighting and dying to protect a way of life the benefits of which were mostly enjoyed by persons unlike themselves. Indeed, the southern elite knew that only by seceding from the union and rebelling openly against the anti-slavery Republican party of Lincoln, might poor whites be kept in line. Three-quarters of southern whites didn’t own slaves; as such they might not be as committed to the system’s maintenance, or that of white supremacy—the institution that confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens called the “cornerstone” of the breakaway government. In 1859, giving voice to concerns that poor and landless whites may prove insufficient support for elite interests in the face of class-conscious anti-slavery forces, one South Carolina politician exclaimed: “I mistrust our own people more than I fear all the efforts of the Abolitionists (2).” It was for this reason that southern lawmakers often tried to pass laws encouraging all whites to own at least one slave and even offering tax breaks and financial incentives to make such ownership possible. Why? Because, as one Tennessee planter explained it: “The minute you put it out of the power of common farmers to purchase a Negro man or woman…you make him an abolitionist at once (3).”

In 1860, Stephen Hale of Alabama wrote to the Governor of Kentucky in his official capacity as Commissioner to that state, in an attempt to convince the latter of the propriety of joining the Confederate government. Therein, he appealed directly to the importance of maintaining white supremacy even for the non-slaveholding class:

If the policy of the Republicans is carried out…and the South submits, degradation and ruin must overwhelm alike all classes of citizens in the Southern States. The slaveholder and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate—all be degraded to a position of equality with free Negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life…Who can look upon such a picture without a shudder? What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters, in the not distant future, associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white man stripped, by the Heaven-daring hand of fanaticism of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed?

Even in the North, these kinds of appeals were common. During the Civil War, Democratic politicians in places like New York appealed to Irish working-class racism, warning that if slaves were emancipated, it would cause blacks to flood northward to “steal the work and the bread of the honest Irish (4).” In short, the elite sought to sow fear of racial equality, appealing to whiteness as a virtually corporate identity, even as most poor whites, south and north, would have been better off financially had enslavement been abolished. Linking the degradation of people of color to the elevation of whites was a narrative and material strategy deployed so as to create a very particular kind of class-consciousness in the majority population: a class-consciousness that would prioritize one’s racial class (or perhaps more properly, caste) over economic station.

After the civil war, industrial capitalism and the organizing of working class folks both North and South followed the developing racial script. Convinced that integrated labor federations would somehow “degrade” the quality of work or the social status of white workers, most labor leaders expressed openly racist and hostile views about blacks and Asian labor, about Mexicans and all workers of color. Furthermore, people of color were kept from most of the largest trade unions for generations, as white workers sought to elevate their racial status above their class interests (5). As one Texas railroader put it, faced with the prospect of admitting blacks to his union: “We would rather be absolute slaves of capital than to take the negro into our lodges as an equal and brother.”

The great sociologist, W.E.B. DuBois wrote extensively about the importance of working class white racism in the early labor movement, and how white workers saw their short-term interests as being served by racial bonding against persons of color, given the white supremacist society in which they were living. Even as such racism diminished the strength of the labor movement in the long term, since employers could use workers of color to break strikes, or hold the prospects of hiring replacement workers of color over the heads of whites to limit the militance of union demands, it made sense in the short run.  Emphasizing the “psychological wage” of whiteness even in the face of inadequate real wages, DuBois explained that as regards the white worker:

…while they received a low wage they were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference…because they were white. They were admitted freely, with all classes of white people, to public functions…The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts dependent upon their votes treated them with leniency…(6)

Not only in regard to black labor, but also that of Chinese railroad workers, whites found their class status elevated by way of racial subordination. When tens of thousands of Chinese were brought to America to help lay the transcontinental railroad, white workers were pacified by promises that far from taking white men’s jobs, Chinese “mudsills” would create a need for new foremen who would exercise authority over the Asian newcomers. During a Congressional investigation into the use of Chinese labor in the 1870s, Charles Crocker—who was a Board member of the Central Pacific Railroad Company—explained the way in which the exploitation of Chinese workers had elevated white labor:

I believe that the effect of Chinese labor upon white labor has an elevating instead of degrading tendency. I think that every white man who is intelligent and able to work, who is more than a digger in a ditch…who has the capacity of being something else, can get to be something else by the presence of Chinese labor…after we got Chinamen to work, we took the more intelligent of the white laborers and made foremen of them. I know of several of them now who never expected, never had a dream that they were going to be anything but shovelers of dirt, hewers of wood and drawers of water, and they are now respectable farmers, owning farms. They got their start by controlling Chinese labor on our railroad (7).

Discussing DuBois’s analysis, historian David Roediger notes, “the pleasures of whiteness could function as a ‘wage’ for white workers.” That is, “status and privileges conferred by race could be used to make up for alienating and exploitative class relationships (8).” The problem of course was that by opting for the “property” of whiteness (as UCLA law professor Cheryl Harris has termed it), white workers and their labor unions managed to trade class interests for racial ones, and in so doing limited the ability of unions as unions to elevate the labor struggle here to the levels that were seen elsewhere. The whites turned into foremen on the railroads may have benefitted from their newfound middle-management positions, but for most whites, who were not so elevated, the promise of advancement was little more than a trick; it was ultimately a way to dampen class-based discontent and keep white workers in line as the go-between, running interference for the white elite against workers of color. Racism ultimately created real material advancement for a few, but at the cost of splitting the economic coalitions that would likely have otherwise developed. It is in much the same way that the late nineteenth century Populist Party (an early iteration of a labor/farmer party in America) was ultimately weakened by racism, when white workers in the movement were turned against workers of color by blatant appeals to white supremacy.

This history matters: it is one thing, after all, to note the relative weakness of labor in the U.S. when compared to labor organizing in other nations—something about which most all on the left are quick to do—but it is quite another to confront the role that racism has played in that comparative weakness and then seek to address it directly. Consider, for instance, how much more vital the American labor movement could have been, had it not fallen prey to the kind of racism voiced in the main publication of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1910, regarding Mexican labor from over the border:

Cheap labor, yes, at the sacrifice of manhood and homes and all that go to build up and sustain a community. Cheap labor—at the cost of every ideal cherished in the heart of every member of the white race, utterly destroyed and buried beneath the greedy ambitions of a few grasping money gluttons…True Americans do not want or advocate the importation of any people who cannot be absorbed into full citizenship, who cannot eventually be raised to our highest social standard (10).

In short, rather than embrace Mexican labor and bring them into the unions—where they would then have helped to form a broader force of workers—here, the leaders of the nation’s largest union federation were suggesting that the enemy was other working people. They were willing to make permanent outsiders of brown-skinned “foreign” labor—ostensibly to better fight the money-grubbing of the elite, whom they recognized as using Mexican workers for less pay—never noticing that in so doing they would force an alliance between those workers of color and the employers, while doing little to help themselves. Again, racism ultimately weakened the position of all workers relative to capital.

So too was the sorry process repeated with regard to blacks. In 1917, the horrific anti-black pogrom that touched off in East St. Louis, Illinois, in which 150 were killed, including thirty-nine children, was sparked by the hiring of blacks by companies there, seeking to break white unions. By promising job opportunities to blacks willing to move from the south, these companies took advantage of union racism and sought to pit struggling blacks against struggling whites. And it worked: When large numbers of African Americans made the journey to East St. Louis, settling in there in hopes of steady employment, white anger grew, not against the bosses who were using both groups of workers, but against the burgeoning black community, finally erupting in an orgy of violence (11).

By the 1920s, playing upon the unwillingness of white unions to integrate, managers in the stockyards and packing houses actually helped create an all-black union—but one that was actually beholden to the company and its leadership. Led by an African American promoter named Richard Parker, the “American Unity Labor Union,” worked to sow suspicion of the dominant white labor movement and white workers, all so as to benefit the interests of company elites. Announcing that the black union did not believe in strikes, and that all differences “between laborers and capitalists can be arbitrated” (and mixing in a dose of pseudo-black nationalism so as to promote race pride and unity) Parker’s group did the bidding of capital, something that was only possible because the white unions had sought to remain segregated in the first place (12).

Elsewhere, in places like New Orleans, employers began hiring Irish and then Italians to replace blacks in canal building and hospitality jobs like restaurants and hotels, as well as barbering, janitorial work and catering (13). Though none of these positions paid exorbitant wages, they provided new economic niches for recent white immigrants, once again creating a link, both material and psychological, between the subordination of African Americans and the relative elevation of whites; it was a link that held despite the fact that those white workers remained well subordinated in the larger class structure by economic elites who, in the end, cared little more for them than those persons of color whose mistreatment had been longstanding.

The Role of Race and Racism in White Hostility to Safety Net Efforts

In addition to weakening the labor movement—thereby helping to enhance the class position of the nation’s ruling elite and the culture of cruelty over which they preside—there is another important way in which racism has furthered the economic inequality and injustice that are the hallmarks of that culture. Specifically, racism has been critical to driving down support for any form of safety nets or social programs to benefit low-income, unemployed and poor Americans. It is impossible to understand the last forty-plus years of backlash to safety net programs, taxation, or the growing opposition to government intervention in the economy, without understanding the politics of race. Although not all persons opposed to such efforts are racists, the anti-tax, anti-government spending, anti-welfare state narrative since the mid-1960s has been intimately intertwined with issues of white resentment towards persons of color, especially blacks; and that narrative linkage has impacted the way in which the white public has come to understand those efforts that are portrayed as examples of “big government.”

In the 1930s and 1940s, New Deal programs and other government interventions to shore up job and housing opportunity enjoyed widespread support. Although the rich no doubt viewed the unemployed and poor as moral slackers who deserved their plight, and surely saw themselves as superior in intellect, work ethic and character, there are few among the masses who would have believed either of those things. The idea that the rich had what they had because they were better, and the poor and unemployed lacked because of their own defects would have struck most average folks as absurd, at least when applied to white Americans. These kinds of hostile views about blacks and other people of color were quite common, but when it came to white farmers in the Dust Bowl Midwest, or white factory workers, or whites on bread lines or riding the rails looking for jobs, the general consensus would have been that these were hard working, salt-of-the-earth types, whose misfortune owed little to their own characters, but rather, were the result of structural forces beyond their control. The elite despised them, but the hobo was a hero to many, about whom some of the nation’s most beloved folks songs were written.

Thanks to the widespread pain experienced by millions during the Depression, and the resulting recognition that state intervention was critical in making real the American dream, government job programs were overwhelmingly popular. Likewise, housing programs initiated by the government, like those of the Federal Housing Administration and the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC)—which provided low-interest loans to millions of families who otherwise could never have qualified for a mortgage—were well-received. Few voices among the masses could have been heard critiquing such efforts as “big government” intrusions into the magic of the free market. The masses had gotten a dose of what the free market had to offer, and most of them were none too impressed.

So long as these efforts, which pumped billions of dollars of income and capital into almost exclusively white hands, and created the white middle class (14), were racially restrictive, they remained popular (15). In fact, it was precisely the exclusion of blacks and other racial minorities from these programs that allowed them to be passed by Congress in the first place. Southern congressmen, seeking to maintain authoritarian control of blacks and prevent them from having alternatives to low-wage, segregated employment, pushed President Roosevelt to accept provisions in his social programs that elevated whites and marginalized persons of color, as a condition of gaining their support. Only by excluding agricultural and domestic workers from Social Security for instance—an exclusion that would remain in place for two decades—could FDR secure the votes of southerners in his own party for the creation of the government retirement program. Because eighty percent or more of blacks in the south worked in those two areas, excluding them from Social Security meant that racist control of black labor could continue unabated, and white employers would be freed from the burden of contributing to retirement funds for their black employees.

So too, the Federal Housing Administration guaranteed low-interest loans for families, but relied on neighborhood “desirability” criteria that all but guaranteed the beneficiaries would be exclusively white. As Rudolph Alexander explains:

Because the federal government was guaranteeing mortgages (they) did not want to make these highly desirable terms available to all people in the United States. Thus the federal government sought to evaluate all properties so that banks would know what type of property merited a federally backed loan. This enormous task of classifying properties fell to a newly created agency in 1936—the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC). HOLC established strict standards. A surveyor looked for any sign…that a neighborhood was in decline. The surveyor would look for any sign of minorities…Even one African American in a neighborhood would disqualify the entire neighborhood from getting any federally backed loans (16).

Maintaining racial segregation and ratifying white privilege in the housing market became central to the offering of government-backed loans under the FHA program. Indeed, the FHA stipulated as a condition of underwriting properties, “If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes (17).” In effect, this meant that people of color couldn’t get loans in rapidly growing white suburbs throughout the 1940s and 1950s, locking them within crowded urban spaces, while freeing up opportunity and access to assets for whites whose only chance at accessing such loans would be in all-white communities outside the cities.

In this sense, the U.S. government subsidized racial isolation and separation, in the process helping to pump billions of dollars worth of housing equity into white hands, while denying the same to people of color. Needless to say, throughout this period, few if any white families complained about the “heavy hand of government” when it came to housing policy; after all, that hand was literally lining their pockets to the exclusion of African Americans and other persons of color. Complaints about taxes being too high so as to finance these big government initiatives were few and far between, even though tax rates were far higher throughout this period than they are today, with the top rate holding at ninety-one percent for most of the 1950s. Apparently, white people didn’t mind government spending so long as the presumptive beneficiaries looked like them. If anything, receiving an FHA loan, or taking advantage of the G.I. Bill—job and educational benefits that were theoretically open to all veterans, but were administered in blatantly racist ways—was a badge of honor for millions.

It was only when people of color began to gain significant access to government programs (and once they became the public face of government programs more broadly) that suddenly the so-called evil of an overly intrusive “nanny state” came to be seen as a problem. Even cash welfare for mothers with children—originally created as “mother’s pensions” as a way to allow white moms to stay home with their kids if their husbands had died or if they had left the family to look for work—had been relatively popular. The thinking, though clearly sexist for how it characterized the “proper” domain of women, was widely accepted:

By providing mothers a pension—essentially small cash payments from the government—the program would enable single mothers to forgo paid work and attend to children in their own home. Advocates suggested that mothers would no longer suffer the fear of leaving children with strangers, the strain of working all day in a factory, or the pain of having their families separated. A mothers’ pension would restore the proper—even sacred—domestic role to those women who struggled alone without a male breadwinner to make ends meet (18).

Although there were expressed concerns about these efforts even for white women—some believed, for instance, that too generous a pension for mothers would relieve women of the “need” for a husband—and although there were harsh regulations put in place that sought to police the sexual morality of recipients, administrators were especially frugal about distributing monies to African American women. By 1933, only three percent of mother’s pensions went to black women, despite their far greater level of economic need (19).

Once mother’s pensions were formally replaced by ADC, restrictions on black access to the program continued, in large measure at the behest of southern administrators who policed the boundaries of the program in explicitly racist ways, deeming the homes of African American women “unfit” for benefits (20). The extent to which race drove growing hostility to cash welfare was most apparent in states like Louisiana, where lawmakers passed a “suitable home” law in 1960 that bumped nearly 30,000 mothers and children—ninety-five percent of them black—from the ADC rolls. The bill, supported by Governor Jimmy Davis who had previously called mothers receiving assistance “a bunch of prostitutes,” was part of a larger package of legislative initiatives in response to desegregation efforts in Louisiana schools—a kind of payback for even the smallest victories over institutional white supremacy (21).

Throughout the 1960s, as women of color increasingly gained access to cash assistance (now renamed AFDC), opposition to the efforts and attacks on recipients proliferated. Thanks to the efforts of the welfare rights movement, AFDC enrollment rolls nearly tripled over a ten-year period from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, in large measure by allowing backlogged cases of black applicants to move through the process (22). On the one hand, this opening of the rolls was of real benefit to black families, in terms of allowing them to better support themselves; but on the other, the increasing “blackness” of such programs in the white imagination helped plant the seeds of backlash with which we are still grappling. Thanks to the “blackening” of welfare in the public mind, ideas like a guaranteed minimum income for all families—prominently endorsed for a brief while by several on both the right and left of the political spectrum (though differing on the specifics)—ultimately were scuttled. In 1972, during Senate Finance Committee hearings on the Family Assistance Plan (President Nixon’s guaranteed income proposal), Senator Russell Long of Louisiana explained his opposition by noting that if poor women were guaranteed a minimal income he wouldn’t be able to find anyone “to iron my shirts.” In other words, and especially in the south, state support for the poor through AFDC or with a guaranteed income would cause a shortage of domestic help performed mostly by black women in white homes (23).

By the mid-to-late 1970s, with the image of welfare thoroughly racialized thanks to persistent media imagery that reinforced these notions (23), it became easy for manipulative politicians to play to those tropes, knowing that appeals to “less government,” “lower taxes,” and attacking “welfare fraud” would pay dividends at the polls. Occasionally, conservatives would even admit this had been their strategy. Lee Atwater, for instance—among the most successful and powerful Republican campaign operatives in the past half-century—acknowledged the racial subtext of his Party’s rhetoric on matters of government, taxes and the like. In a now-infamous 1981 interview, Atwater explained how persons like him and the candidates for whom he worked (including Ronald Reagan), deftly used abstract racial imagery to make the same appeals that, a generation before would have been far more explicit.

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger…” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites…obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger”.

As conservatives and the Republican Party increasingly pushed buttons of racial resentment, while studiously avoiding the kinds of explicitly racist rhetoric common to previous reactionary politicians, the linkage between liberal social policy and handouts to African Americans became firmly concretized in the public mind. This was especially true for the working class whites who had long been a key part of the Democratic Party’s base. As David Dante Troutt notes, from his recent book, The Price of Paradise:

By 1984, when Ronald Reagan and George Bush beat Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro in the presidential election, many white Democratic voters had come to read their own party’s messages through what Edsall calls a “racial filter.” In their minds, higher taxes were directly attributable to policies of a growing federal government; they were footing the bill for minority preference programs. If the public argument was cast as wasteful spending on people of weak values, the private discussions were explicitly racial. For instance, Edsall quotes polling studies of “Reagan Democrats” in Macomb County—the union friendly Detroit suburbs that won the battle to prevent cross-district school desegregation plans in 1973—that presents poignant evidence of voter anger: “These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics…Blacks constitute the explanation for their [white defectors’] vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a neighborhood a decent place to live. These sentiments have important implications for Democrats, as virtually all progressive symbols and themes have been redefined in racial and pejorative terms.”

It was this racialization of liberal and Democratic social policy, more than any other factor, which convinced white working class and middle class voters to support supply-side economics. After all, the fundamental premise of conservative economic policy by the 1980s was that taxes should be slashed for the wealthy so that the benefits might “trickle down” to the rest of us. It was a notion that would have met with widespread derision from most voters in the past, and which had never held much sway for them in previous decades, where direct government intervention to boost wages and job opportunities had long been the favored policies. But once taxes came to be seen largely as a redistribution scheme in which “productive” (read: white) people were burdened so as to benefit “lazy” (read: black) people, calls for tax cuts no longer required that one agree with or even understand the economic rationale for them; all that mattered now was that such cuts would stick it to blacks on behalf of a beleaguered and fiscally burdened white electorate. As Troutt explains, “Only racism could achieve the ideological union of the Republican rich with the working man (and woman). Nothing else could fuse their naturally opposed interests.”

Ultimately it was the moral posturing of middle and working class whites—the sense that they were arbiters of decency, values and upright behavior, contrasted with blacks who were violators of all three—which allowed so many of them to vote against their direct and immediate material interests, or at least to define those interests in highly racialized ways. It is this moral wage—a slight deviation from what DuBois called the “psychological wage” of whiteness—which traditional liberals, progressives and leftists have always managed to underestimate. So when asking “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” as political theorist Thomas Frank has done in an attempt to understand why working and middle class whites support policies that cater to the rich, the role of racial resentment is inevitably downplayed in favor of an analysis that focuses on religious manipulation over issues like abortion—anything but race (24). Further to the left, the Occupy movement, even as it raised issues of income and wealth inequality in America, largely ignored the centrality of race and racism to that inequality and the nation’s larger ambivalence to it. It’s as if white liberals and the white left are afraid to call out the obvious: Anger about big government is largely about the racialization of government efforts on behalf of the have-nots and have-lessers. Unless this reality is confronted, support for progressive social policy will be undermined, because a significant reason for opposition to such policies will go unaddressed.

Consider, the deft racialization of the health care debate in 2009. Although the Obama health care plan was criticized as far too moderate by most all persons on the left, conservatives managed to characterize it as a big government boondoggle, making it one of the more contentious public policies in years. Additionally, the right characterized it in blatantly racial terms. Conservative commentator Glenn Beck, for instance, said that the president’s desire for broader health care availability was driven by his belief in “reparations for slavery,” simply because people of color are disproportionately the ones lacking insurance, and thus, would reap disproportionate benefits. On an intellectual level, the argument was quite obviously absurd (after all, what kind of reparations requires its beneficiaries to get sick first, in order to get paid?), but it was genius politically in that it was perfectly calculated to get a reaction. By suggesting that any policy disproportionately benefitting those with lower income can be viewed as “payback for slavery”—since African Americans are disproportionately to be found among the poor—Beck could essentially prime the racial resentment that had animated white opposition to the notion of safety nets for forty-plus years. Any policy to assist the poor or unemployed, from unemployment insurance to college loan assistance to emergency food aid to early childhood education funding, can be seen as an anti-white confiscation scheme under this logic, thereby pushing buttons of racial resentment on cue when conjured by those like Beck.

And it wasn’t only Beck who tried to link health care reform and racial payback in the public’s mind. Rush Limbaugh said the same thing several months later, referring to the president’s health care reform proposal as a “civil rights bill” and “reparations,” as did the folks at the FOX Nation website and Investor’s Business Daily, the latter of which went so far as to refer to health care reform as “affirmative action on steroids,” to make sure the message wasn’t lost on anyone.

Though one could perhaps argue that these claims are so ridiculous as to be entirely unpersuasive, there is evidence that such appeals can be quite effective in fostering race-based opposition to real policy proposals, even when those proposals are intended to bring universal and broad-based benefit. So consider public support for health care reform in the wake of Barack Obama’s election as president. When studies were conducted in which white respondents were given a description of a health care reform plan and told it was Bill Clinton’s 1993 proposal, they overwhelmingly supported it. Given the same proposal but told it was Barack Obama’s health care reform plan, they overwhelmingly opposed it. And when it came to explaining the difference, the research found that whites who scored high on measures of racial resentment—believing, for instance, that blacks get “more than they deserve” from government—were the most likely to alter their perception of the proposal when they thought it was Obama’s as opposed to Clinton’s. Those who expressed the greatest level of racial resentment and were most likely to accept negative stereotypes of African Americans were nearly twice as likely as those with low levels of racial resentment to oppose health care reform when they thought Obama was its proponent as opposed to Clinton, suggesting that something other than mere partisanship can explain white opposition to health care reform.

In other words, white opposition to social safety net programs, from health care to cash assistance to nutrition aid and housing assistance, is shaped by the perception that the beneficiaries will be mostly people of color, and thus, undeserving. And this perception retains influence in spite of the reality that it is not mostly people of color who receive the benefits from government programs. While black folks comprise about twelve percent of the population, they receive only fourteen percent of government benefits, roughly in line with their population share and well below their percentage of the nation’s poor, which stands at twenty-two percent. Although African Americans receive certain benefits disproportionately (because they are more likely to be poor and those benefits are only available to persons below a certain income), those disproportions are small. So, for instance, blacks receive about twenty-eight percent of SNAP benefits, which is roughly in keeping with their percentage of the population that is either poor or near poor and thus eligible. They receive only thirteen percent of unemployment benefits, which is below their share of the unemployed at any given moment. They receive twenty-one percent of school lunch benefits (in line with their share of those who qualify for them based on income), only thirteen percent of Medicare benefits, and twenty-two percent of Medicaid benefits, equal to their share of the poverty population.

Likewise, Latinos, who comprise sixteen percent of the population, and twenty-nine percent of the nation’s poor, receive only twelve percent of government benefits. This includes only thirteen percent of unemployment compensation, twenty-three percent of SNAP benefits, five percent of Medicare benefits and twenty-one percent of Medicaid dollars spent. Meanwhile, whites, at forty-two percent of the nation’s poverty population (and sixty-four percent of the overall population), receive sixty-nine percent of all government benefits. Although many of these dollars represent Social Security payments (which, it can be argued, were “earned” by defined contributions into the system during one’s working years), it is still the case that whites receive sixty-eight percent of unemployment benefits, fifty-two percent of SSI benefits (mostly for those with disabilities), forty-two percent of SNAP, consume eighty percent of Medicare expenditures, and nearly six in ten Medicaid dollars.

So long as progressives fail to openly confront the way in which racial resentment against folks of color has been used to weaken support for safety net efforts, attempts to strengthen those safety nets will likely fail. According to a study from the Harvard Institute of Economic Research, it is white racial resentment and bias—and specifically, fear that blacks will take advantage of social programs—more than any other factor, which explains opposition to safety net efforts in America. This means that appeals to self-interest, or even the larger economic benefit of such programs, will likely be ignored unless the racialized root of white opposition is confronted. If whites are being encouraged to defend their interests in racial terms rather than class terms, only by challenging that tendency and exposing it for the deliberately manipulative and cynical strategy it is, might we hope to pare off enough whites from the conservative ranks to join with people of color in defending a more equitable society.

Such a strategy won’t be easy of course, but ignoring the way safety nets have been racialized will allow the subtle and implicit biases upon which the Becks and Limbaughs of the world capitalize to go unexamined. What the research on subconscious and implicit bias has shown us is that those kinds of biases are more effective and do more harm when they are uninterrogated and allowed to remain in the background. By forcing them into the light of day, we force those who may be operating on the basis of those biases to confront their prejudices; and since most Americans wish not to be seen as operating on the basis of racial bias, that confrontation with the gap between aspiration and achievement can potentially prompt significant numbers of white Americans to rise to the level of their aspirations rather than sink to the level of their fears. I discussed this issue of implicit bias and how conscious reflection on prejudices can help inhibit it in my previous book, Colorblind, but it is worth quoting Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen here as well on this point, and how directly confronting racial triggers might help inhibit their operationalization. As Westen explains:

The scientific data suggest two strategies that are…effective in addressing unconscious prejudice…The first is to remind people of their conscious values, which tend to be our better angels on race…the second is to speak directly to the conflict between those values and the attitudes we hold at some level that we wish we didn’t…It’s about talking to people like grown ups…The best antidote to unconscious bias is self-reflection. And the best way to foster that self-reflection is through telling the truth.

Making it plain that the right has been manipulating white racial resentment and playing upon deeply ingrained prejudices in their tirades against social safety net programs can force whites whose racism is not blatant or deliberate, but implicit and subconscious (who are the only ones likely reachable to begin with) to see that they are being used. And not just used, but used by people who ultimately think so little of them that they assume their biases can forever and always trump their sense of justice, and are willing to bank on that cynical view.


(1) Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race: Volume I: Racial Oppression and Social Control (New York, Verso, 2012).

(2) Herbert G. Gutman and the American Social History Project, Who Built America: Working People and the Nation’s Economy, Politics, Culture and Society – Volume I (New York, Pantheon, 1989), 420.

(3) Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (Oxford University Press, 2011, Kindle Edition), 56.

(4) Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Boston: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Co., 1993), 152.

(5) Herbert Hill, “Racism Within Organized Labor: A Report of Five Years of the AFL-CIO, 1955- 1960,” The Journal of Negro Education  (Vol. 30, No. 2, Spring, 1961).

(6) W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (New York: The Free Press, 1998), 700.

(7) Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Boston: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Co., 1993), 204.

(8) David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991), 12-13.

(9) Carter A. Wilson, Racism: From Slavery to Advanced Capitalism (Thousand Oaks California, Sage Publishing, 1996), 100-101.

(10) Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Boston: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Co., 1993), 331.

(11) Derrick Bell, “Police Brutality: Portent of Disaster and Discomforting Divergence,” in Police Brutality: An Anthology, Jill Nelson, ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 95.

(12) Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Boston: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Co., 1993), 350.

(13) Philip Perlmutter, Legacy of Hate (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1999), 121.

(14) Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

(15) Kenneth J. Neubeck and Noel A. Cazenave, Welfare Racism: Playing the Race Card Against America’s Poor (New York: Routledge, 2001).

(16) Rudolph Alexander, Jr. Racism, African Americans and Social Justice (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), 85.

(17) Gerald Grant, Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There are No Bad Schools in Raleigh (Cambridge, MA: The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2009), 17-18.

(18) Premilla Nadasen, Jennifer Middelstadt and Marissa Chappel, Welfare in the United States: A History with Documents, 1935-1996 (New York: Routledge, 2009), Kindle Location 473.

(19) Premilla Nadasen, Jennifer Middelstadt and Marissa Chappel, Welfare in the United States: A History with Documents, 1935-1996 (New York: Routledge, 2009), Kindle Location 503.

(20) Kenneth J. Neubeck and Noel A. Cazenave, Welfare Racism: Playing the Race Card Against America’s Poor (New York: Routledge, 2001).

(21) Premilla Nadasen, Jennifer Middelstadt and Marissa Chappel, Welfare in the United States: A History with Documents, 1935-1996 (New York: Routledge, 2009), Kindle Location 785-790.

(22) Peter Edelman, So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America (New York: The New Press, 2012), 20.

(23) Premilla Nadasen, Jennifer Middelstadt and Marissa Chappel, Welfare in the United States: A History with Documents, 1935-1996 (New York: Routledge, 2009), Kindle Location 1336-1341.

(24) Martin Gilens, Why Americans Hate Welfare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

(25) Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010).

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