The following is partially excerpted from my book Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of the America (San Francisco: City Lights, 2015). Footnotes and references (other than those hyperlinked herein) are available in the book.
Regardless of how one feels about the matter, it is widely understood that the United States has a less complete system of social safety nets than most other industrialized nations. While the fact of less generous social support programs here is evident, a clear understanding of why the U.S. has been so much stingier than others is not always as self-evident.
Among the most prominent explanations is the lack of a labor-based party in the U.S. and the relative weakness of labor unions here relative to their strength elsewhere. After all, strong labor movements can wrest concessions from the owners of capital and lawmakers, from unemployment insurance to various forms of income support to which folks can turn during economic downturns.
While this analysis is certainly true, it still leaves one to wonder, why? Why is the labor struggle generally weaker here than in Europe, for instance? Why is working class consciousness less concretized in America than in many of the nations with whom we compare ourselves?
Although there are likely several answers to these questions, among the biggest is the role of racism in dividing working class folks along lines of racial identity. The development of the class structure in the United States has been, from the beginning, interwoven with the development of white supremacy. Indeed, white supremacy and the elevation of whites as whites above persons of color has been critical in the shoring up of class division. As such, unless we address racial inequity and racism it will be exceedingly difficult if not impossible to make significant headway on resolving our economic divide.
Sadly, most Americans appear not to comprehend this truism. 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 history of racism and 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. 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 Europeans above blacks and indigenous peoples was a conscious one, made so as to secure the position of the elite, which was threatened by the possibility of cross-racial, class-based rebellion.
To limit the prospects for peasant-class consciousness across racial lines, colonial elites passed 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. 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 but can force the black person to do it for free because he owns them, the employment and wage base for white workers is bid downward. But by way of laws meant to create racialized status for poor Europeans (now called white), elites elevated such peasants just enough to allow them to trade their class interests for racial ones.
It was this elevation of whiteness that helped convince most white southerners to support secession and the maintenance of slavery. Even though the wealthy could 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 had to take up the slack and risk their own lives to protect the power of the elite — working class whites typically fell in line, fighting and dying to protect a way of life mostly benefitting persons unlike themselves.
Indeed, the southern planter class knew that only by seceding and rebelling 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 maintenance of the slave system or white supremacy — the institution that confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens called the “cornerstone” of the breakaway government.
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 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.”
Even in the North, these kinds of appeals were common. During the Civil War, politicians in 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.” In short, the elite sought to sow fear of racial equality, even as most poor whites would have been better off financially had enslavement been abolished.
After the civil war, the racial script continued to play out in northern industrial centers, where capitalists looked to play white workers off against those of color.
First, white union leaders expressed open hostility to black, Mexican and Asian labor, and warned that bringing workers of color into the unions would “degrade” the quality of their various trades. In response, the elite would use precisely these black and brown workers — whose desperation was fed by their exclusion from good union jobs — to break strikes by whites. In some cases, the elite would even fund the creation of separate black labor groups that were more conciliatory towards the position of capital, as a way to stoke competition and hostility between white workers and those of color.
The white workers would then attack the workers of color, blaming them for “taking their jobs,” or harming the cause of unionism, rather than concentrating on organizing those same black and brown workers into labor contingencies that could challenge the prerogatives of the bosses.
The great sociologist, W.E.B. DuBois wrote extensively about the importance of working class white racism in the early labor movement, and how whiteness provided a “psychological wage” that offered a stake in the system to white workers, even as they suffered from inadequate real wages and horrific working conditions. 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 undermine their class interests for the sake of racial ones, thereby limiting the ability of unions as unions to elevate the labor struggle here to the levels seen elsewhere.
Understanding this history is vital, especially at a time when Donald Trump regularly appeals to working class whites with tales of how people of color threaten their well-being. Trump is literally calling the oldest play in the playbook of the American class system, but one we have yet to adequately disrupt.
Racism has also been critical to directly driving down support for government spending to benefit low-income, unemployed and poor Americans.
In the 1930s and 1940s, New Deal programs and other government interventions to shore up job and housing opportunity enjoyed widespread support. Thanks to 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 like those of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) 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 free market.
But the key to the popularity of these efforts was their racial exclusivity, as most of them were either off limits to people of color, or only available on heavily restricted terms. So long as these efforts (which literally created the white middle class) remained racially restrictive, they enjoyed popular support. Indeed, receiving an FHA loan, or taking advantage of G.I. Bill benefits — theoretically open to all veterans, but administered in blatantly racist ways — was a badge of honor for millions.
Even cash assistance — initially created for white widows or mothers whose husbands had left to find work during the Depression — enjoyed relatively high levels of support from most Americans, as did early public housing (from which blacks were routinely excluded). It was only when people of color began to gain significant access to government programs (and once they became the public face of those programs) that suddenly the so-called evil of an overly intrusive “nanny state” came to be seen as a problem.
By the mid-to-late 1970s, with the image of government program beneficiaries thoroughly racialized thanks to persistent media imagery that reinforced these notions, it became easy for 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 admit this had been their strategy. Lee Atwater— among the most successful Republican campaign operatives in history — acknowledged the racial subtext of the new conservative rhetoric. 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, “Ni&&er, ni&&er, ni&&er…” By 1968 you can’t say “ni&&er” — 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 “Ni&&er, ni&&er”.
As conservatives increasingly pushed buttons of racial resentment, while avoiding the explicitly racist rhetoric so common in previous eras, the link between liberal social policy and handouts to African Americans became concretized in the public mind. It was this, more than any other factor, which convinced white working class and middle class voters to turn against virtually any programs perceived as “big government” initiatives.
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 Obama’s plan, they overwhelmingly opposed it. And the research found that whites who scored high on measures of racial resentment — believing 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.
In other words, white opposition to safety net programs is shaped by the perception that 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.
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. Making it plain that the right has been playing upon deeply ingrained prejudices in their tirades against social safety net programs will be necessary in order to get those 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 think so little of them that they assume their biases can forever and always override their sense of justice, and are willing to bank on that cynical view.
Let us invest in a different perspective, a different politic, and a different vision of the future.