The Role of Race in the Devolution of the Left

“When the official subject is presidential politics, taxes, welfare, crime, rights, or values . . . the real subject is RACE.” So read the cover story for the May 1991 issue of The Atlantic.[i] The authors, Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary D. Edsall, trumpeted their message with deafening clarity. Their title conveyed the extent that race, in its overt and insidiously covert forms, had come to penetrate, even dominate political discourse. Unfortunately, the Edsalls stop short of a critical examination of the discourses that end up blaming blacks for their own plight. For example, they give credence to the core assumption of the Moynihan Report—that the employment problems of blacks derive from a weak family instead of the other way around. They also tend to explain the white backlash as a reaction to the pathology and disorder emanating from the nation’s ghettos, instead of grasping the breathtaking contradiction of the very existence of ghettos in a putatively democratic society, and the ramifications of having an entire people trapped in the scaffolding of an apartheid society. Their epistemological failure is taking all of this as a given.


Nevertheless, the Edsalls offer a penetrating analysis of the centrality of race and racism in American politics during the post-civil rights era. Their message has particular relevance to the Left, given its inveterate tendency to subsume race to class—that is, to treat race as a mere epiphenomenon camouflaging the underlying divisions and interests of class. Or as a distraction or impediment to building coalitions in order to advance its primary goal of class transformation. I submit that we cannot begin to grasp “the undoing of a century of reform” except by confronting the profound influence of race and racism on American politics during the half-century following the passage of landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965.

According to the Edsalls, “by 1964 the Democrats had become the party of racial liberalism and the Republicans had become the party of racial conservatism.”[ii] This was highlighted by the fact that Johnson supported and Goldwater opposed passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Of course, Goldwater lost in a landslide, and liberal pundits at the time gleefully declared that “conservatism is dead,” which of course turned out to be woefully mistaken.

I can inject a bit of personal testimony here. In 1965, as a fledgling graduate student at UC, Berkeley, I wrote an article (with Gertrude Jaeger Selznick) on “Social Class and Ideology in the 1964 Presidential Election,” based on a national survey conducted during the three weeks preceding the November election.[iii] We found that, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, many voters were in ideological agreement with Goldwater on a range of social issues, but recoiled at Goldwater’s opposition to Medicare, which had been proposed by Kennedy and was wending its way through Congress. In other words, when pocketbook interests clashed with ideology, many people voted their class interests. The lesson was not lost on strategists within the Republican Party, who made social security and Medicare “the third rail” of politics. Until now! However, Republican leaders have already backed away from “the Ryan plan,” which is opposed even by most Tea Party adherents, lest it take the party down to defeat in the 2012 election.[iv]

By 1968 the ideological cleavage among traditional Democratic voters became manifest when Wallace surprised everyone by reaping significant support in Democratic primaries in the North as well as the South. In his 1969 book The Emerging Republican Majority, Kevin Phillips, a strategist in the Nixon campaign, declared that Nixon’s election “bespoke the end of the New Deal Democratic hegemony and the beginning of a new era in American politics.”[v] The chief reason lay with “Democratic voting streams quitting their party.” In effect, this amounted to white flight, not from urban neighborhoods and schools, but from a Democratic Party that had come to be identified with blacks. The mass defection of Southern Democrats made the Republican Party heir to the dubious title as “the party of segregation.” However, more was involved than white backlash. As the Edsalls shrewdly observed, “Wallace defined a new right-wing populism, capitalizing on voter reaction to the emergence of racial, cultural, and moral liberalism.”[vi]

If the 1964 election signified “the death of conservatism,” it took only until 1968 to turn the tables on liberals. Republicans won 5 of the 6 elections between 1968 and 1988, and 7 of the 10 elections between 1968 and 2004, thus establishing firm control over the institutions of national power, including the Supreme Court. To curb defection from its traditional constituencies, the New Democrats moved the party decidedly to the right.

It is commonplace to view this oscillation as an inevitable swing of the ideological pendulum, as though some law of physics or dialectics was at work. However, as Stephen Eric Bronner writes in “Notes on the Counter-Revolution”: “The ongoing battle of differing value systems was generated less by some abstract ‘dialectic’ than a concrete and empirical conflict between the partisans of revolution and counter-revolution.”[vii] The challenge, then, is to identify the partisans of counter-revolution and to explain their political ascent. Note, however, that the partisans of counter-revolution do not have to be preponderant to have a decisive impact on electoral politics, as is evident from the recent success of the Tea Party. As the Edsalls write: “The sea change in American presidential politics—the replacement of a liberal majority with a conservative majority—involved the conversion of a relatively small proportion of voters: the roughly five to ten percent of the electorate, made up primarily of white working-class voters empowered to give majority status to either political party.”[viii] Indeed, this was the source of worry in the 2008 election when Obama’s bowling ball went down the gutter, and industrial states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana hung in abeyance. As it turned out, Obama won with only 43 percent of white votes, despite the meltdown of capitalism and the debility of McCain’s campaign. Obama’s triumph owes less to stemming white defection than in the unprecedented turnout of Black voters, together with the fact that the two-thirds of Latinos who supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries voted for Obama in the general election. White youth provided another notable base of support, keeping the partisans of counter-revolution in check.

To understand the counterrevolution, we have to begin with a clear understanding of the unfolding history of the revolution it sought to negate. Let us not forget where it all began. As Bronner writes, “The Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King initiated what would become a general challenge to racist, patriarchal, and homophobic prejudices . . . .” Nor is it accurate or fair to disparage these movements as “identity politics.” Not only were these movements legitimate in their own right, but they also constituted a necessary first stage in an expanding movement. Stage 2: “These concerns blended into a rejection of imperialism and colonialism, which was expressed in the opposition to the Vietnam War . . . .” Stage 3: “With the ‘new social movements’ in the United States came a slew of new and transformational economic and social programs known as ‘the Great Society’ and attack on inequality more expansive even than the New Deal of FDR.” Stage 4: “In tandem with this came legislation that enabled people of color to vote, overturned racist electoral laws carried over from the collapse of Reconstruction in the 1870s, and thus produced the most radical extension of the franchise since women won the right to vote in 1919. Finally, with respect to the struggle to end the Vietnam War, there emerged an assault upon the traditional insular and formation of foreign policy by the political establishment.”[ix]

Logically and politically, the partisans of counter-revolution were compelled to begin where the revolution had begun—with the civil rights movement. As I argue below, there was a relentless effort to drive every nail into the coffin of the civil rights movement. Conservative intellectuals and strategists seized upon the mounting popular opposition to the racial liberalism of the Democratic Party. With the help of nascent neocons, conservatives underwent an ideological facelift: they now portrayed themselves as the champions of the rights and interests of white workers. This rhetoric gained momentum with an ideological crusade against affirmative action during the 1980s, followed by an attack on “welfare”—that is, Aid for Dependent Children (AFDC). However, these were only dress rehearsals for a larger assault on the welfare state itself. Emboldened by their success, the partisans of counter-revolution, with the backing of right-wing foundations and think tanks, launched a campaign against the New Left and “the Left academy.” Thanks to their control of the White House for 28 years, Republicans were able to pack the Supreme Court with judges weaned by the Federalist Society, which today has chapters in over 200 law schools across the nation. With their neocon allies, Republicans also seized control of the foreign policy apparatus, leading to imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the time the term “neoliberalism” entered academic discourse, it was already a fait accompli.


Nails in the Coffin of the Civil Rights Revolution

In retrospect, the groundwork for counter-revolution began at the very moment that the civil rights movement reached its triumphant climax, and it had the fingerprints of Daniel Patrick Moynihan all over it. In June 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was wending its way through Congress, President Johnson made his now-famous commencement address at Howard University. The speech, written by Richard Goodwin and Moynihan, was riddled with contradiction. Johnson electrified his audience when he intoned, “Freedom is not enough . . . . We seek not just freedom but opportunity . . . not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and as a result.” After that rhetorical high, the speech abruptly switched gears, obviously reflecting Moynihan’s handicraft. Now Johnson declared: “Equal opportunity is essential, but not enough . . . . [U]nless we work to strengthen the family . . . all the rest: schools and playgrounds, public assistance and private concern, will never be enough to cut completely the circle of despair and deprivation.” With this rhetorical sleight of hand, the focus shifted from “equal results” to “the black family.” This, I submit, was a fateful first nail in the coffin of the civil rights movement, even before it had been given a decent burial![x]

With Nixon’s election in 1964, other nails were driven into the coffin. Consistent with the rapidly shifting political currents, Nixon oscillated between support for and unapologetic negation of the civil rights agenda. On the one hand, he sought to appoint two outright segregationists to the Supreme Court. POUND! POUND!  On the other hand, with the nation still reeling from the “riots” following Martin Luther King’s assassination, and with mounting opposition to the Vietnam War, Nixon was fearful of opening up “a second front” at home. He appointed George Romney as Secretary of HUD, who launched a policy to integrate the suburbs, the very place to which whites had fled to escape the black nemesis. When the predictable backlash erupted, Nixon reneged and eased Romney out of office. Integrated housing: another nail in the coffin.[xi]

The more important flip-flop involved the Philadelphia Plan, which was the embryo for affirmative action policy. Actually, the policy was devised by liberals within Johnson’s Department of Labor, but it was shelved after Humphrey’s defeat. Confronted with a rash of grassroots protests at construction sites in cities like New York, Detroit, and Chicago, Nixon gave Arthur Fletcher, the black Assistant Secretary of Labor, and his boss George Shultz, the green light to revive the Philadelphia Plan. Nixon then risked a great deal of political capital heading off a challenge in Congress, where the Plan was opposed by most labor unions and Jewish organizations, and received equivocal support from civil rights leaders (it was adamantly opposed by Bayard Rustin). Finally, the Justice Department, headed by John Mitchell, defended the Philadelphia Plan from a challenge in the Supreme Court. After the Court’s favorable ruling, affirmative action mandates (“goals and timetables”) extended to all government contractors, including universities. Now it was affirmative action that engendered a firestorm of opposition and once again Nixon flip-flopped. In the 1972 election Nixon ran against the very “quotas” that he had put into effect. POUND! Another major nail in the coffin.

This warrants further attention because affirmative action not only shattered the liberal coalition but also helped to resuscitate conservatism from its long slumber. Let me explain.

In 1964, years before affirmative action evolved as official policy, Commentary, which at the time was a leading liberal publication, sponsored an event at New York City’s Town Hall on “Liberalism and the Negro.” Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, opened the proceedings by warning of “a widening split between the Negro movement and the white liberal community.” The problem was that several civil rights leaders were calling for “compensatory programs” in employment and education that would pry open doors of opportunity previously closed to blacks. To Podhoretz and his cadre at Commentary, this smacked of a system of proportionate representation that was reminiscent of the numerus clausus in Russia and a dire threat to Jews who were statistically overrepresented in the professions and elite universities. Podhoretz brought in his “big guns”—Nathan Glazer, Sidney Hook, and Gunnar Myrdal, all of whom declared their blanket opposition to any system of racial preference. James Baldwin stood alone, parrying their arguments with his usual resolve and eloquence. In effect, a line was drawn in the sand: these liberals had supported blacks in their quest for civil rights, but they were adamantly opposed to anything that smacked of preference. In 1975 Glazer went on to publish Affirmative Discrimination, the first book-length attack on affirmative action, in which he compared affirmative action to the Nuremberg Laws. Never mind that affirmative action was intended as a remedy for Jim Crow practices that inspired the Nuremberg Laws.[xii]

For its own reasons, labor—read: white labor—was adamantly opposed to affirmative action, fearful that it would curb their monopoly on jobs in construction and manufacturing.[xiii] By the 1980s, what began as a squabble within the liberal coalition emerged as a full-blown anti-affirmative crusade, now centered in the political Right. What explains this political metamorphosis?

In Freedom Is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace, Nancy MacLean reveals how the rhetoric of compensatory treatment and the emerging political battles over affirmative action resurrected the conservative cause from the doldrums of Goldwater’s defeat and the Right’s inability to find any traction among the public—that is, beyond diehard Republicans.[xiv] By the early 1970s, conservative pundits realized they could reap political hay from white resentment over “quotas.” Now it was conservative scholars who put their talents as wordsmiths to work. Writing in Commentary in 1972, Richard Herrnstein (later the co-author with Charles Murray of The Bell Curve) railed against “the equalitarian orthodoxy.”[xv]

William Buckley, the founding editor of The National Review, discovered commonality with the new ideological pathways forged by neocons. According to MacLean, Buckley “observed the work of the neoconservatives with mounting admiration and excitement as Irving Kristol, for example, argued that conservatives were defending liberal institutions from liberals’ own mounting complaints.”[xvi] Affirmative action provided conservatives with an issue that went beyond fighting Communism and championing free enterprise. At the same time, it dispelled suspicions that conservatives harbored a latent anti-Semitism or animus toward blacks. With this ideological facelift, conservatives could now present themselves, not as the enemy of equality, but as the champion of colorblindness. Instead of opposition to blacks and civil rights, they rallied to the defense of white males against “the New Equality,” which, according to Robert Nisbet, was “the gravest single threat to liberty and social initiative.”[xvii] Thus, with the help of the neocons, conservatives used the controversy over affirmative action to turn the tables on liberals, and to develop an ideological blueprint for the restoration of conservatives to power.

By the 1980s, opposition to affirmative action had grown into a veritable crusade, waged by right-wing pundits and publications with the indispensable funding of right-wing foundations and think tanks. As in the case of the revolution that the partisans of counter-revolution sought to negate, the shifting political currents reached into the university and the ranks of social science. Charles Murray’s 1984 book Losing Ground argued that the welfare state created the conditions that it purported to remedy: welfare dependency, non-work, family breakdown, rising crime, moral breakdown.[xviii] Thomas Sowell, Glenn Loury, and a cadre of black conservatives, lavishly funded by foundations and ensconced in leading universities, put a black face on “white sociology,” vitiating claims that sociology had all along been driven by racism. Publication of The Bell Curve in 1994 marked the apogee of the intellectual backlash, with the reinstatement of the scientific racism that supposedly had been relinquished to the trash heap nearly a century earlier. Nor was the backlash only about biology. As Adolph Reed wrote in The Nation in 1994: “We can trace Murray’s legitimacy directly to the spinelessness, opportunism and racial bad faith of the liberals in the social-policy establishment . . . . Many of those objecting to Herrnstein and Murray’s racism embrace positions that are almost indistinguishable, except for the resort to biology.”[xix]

If Thomas Sowell put a black face on conservatism, William Julius Wilson put a black face on racial liberalism. In his Godkin lectures at Harvard in 1985, Moynihan could gloat: “The family report had been viewed as mistaken; the benign neglect memorandum was depicted as out-and-out racist. By mid-decade, however, various black scholars were reaching similar conclusions, notably William Julius Wilson in his 1978 study, The Declining Significance of Race.”[xx]

For his part, Moynihan was on record, as early as 1965, as opposed to compensatory treatment for blacks, insisting that such policies had to be race-neutral.[xxi] Again, Wilson picked up the very ideological position for which Moynihan and white liberals had been pummeled. When he, too, came under attack, Wilson shifted his position to join those who argued that affirmative action should be class-based. This position was congenial not only to many on the Left, but also to right-wing advocates who cast themselves as champions of the white working class. In actuality, class-based affirmative action never had a chance of being enacted as policy, but served only as a red herring in the affirmative action debate. This explains why the idea of class-based affirmative action was embraced by the very conservatives who spearheaded the crusade against affirmative action: Clint Bolick, Dinesh D’Souza, Clarence Thomas, Charles Murray, Richard Herrnstein, and Newt Gingrich.[xxii] It was sheer political theater, as they feigned compassion for the working classes only to provide ideological cover for their assault on affirmative action.

According to MacLean, within less than a year of its proclamation, word spread that the Philadelphia Plan was to “die a quiet death.” In February 1973, Nixon appointed Peter Brennan, the New York City building trades leader who organized the “hard-hat” demonstrations, as secretary of labor, thus driving another nail in the coffin of the civil rights movement.

Let us return to the Republican Party’s ideological facelift that replaced raw racism with code words and allowed conservatives to tap white resentment, not by assailing blacks but by championing small government, states rights, and lower taxes. Ponder the words of Lee Atwater, Reagan’s campaign consultant, speaking with rare candor in an anonymous interview in 1981, in which he explained the evolution of the Southern strategy:

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, 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. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because 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.”[xxiii]

This was the historical conjuncture when racism receded into code words and circumlocutions that tapped broader ideological currents in the body politic. Thus, the electoral success of Republicans during the post-civil war period was not the result only of racial backlash. It also reflected the inroads that the burnished conservative philosophy had on voters with conservative proclivities who wavered in their loyalty to the Democratic Party.

Welfare had come under withering attack over several decades, no doubt heightened by the success of the welfare rights movement in expanding the welfare rolls during the late 60s and 70s. Reagan stoked the issue with his riff about “the welfare queen” with eighty names, thirty addresses, and twelve Social Security cards who drove around Chicago’s South Side in a Cadillac. Yet for all the political wrangling, AFDC was never a very costly program. Its benefits went primarily to children and the mothers of those children, and consisted of a rent supplement and a meager living allowance. Between 1970 and 1993, total federal and state spending on AFDC benefits increased from $15.5 billion to $22.3 billion (adjusted for inflation).  Even though the number of recipients increased by 91 percent, costs increased by only 44 percent because the average monthly AFDC benefit per family shrunk by almost half. The final blow came in 1996, when Bill Clinton, casting himself as a New Democrat, affixed his signature to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, annulling welfare entitlements that had been in place since the New Deal.[xxiv] Another cruel nail in the coffin of the civil rights movement. And an opening salvo in a campaign against the welfare state itself.

Race and Neoliberalism

Only in hindsight is it clear that Bill Clinton, the New Democrat, represented a transitional period in what morphed into neoliberalism.[xxv] Let me make two related points about race and neoliberalism. First, race and racism were used, with political cunning, to epitomize all that is wrong with the welfare state, to whip up antagonism toward the “big government” that gave us the New Deal and the Great Society, and to impart new legitimacy to “states rights,” which was the ideological linchpin behind the Civil War. Second, the policies enacted under the emergent neoliberal regime have all had particularly devastating effects on African Americans. So much the better, as Lee Atwater pointed out, since this tapped the lode of submerged racism and gave proof to the lie that liberal programs were designed to help blacks at the expense of everybody else. Indeed, Glenn Beck has recently denounced universal healthcare, universal college, and green jobs as “stealth reparations.”[xxvi]

Downsizing of government and outsourcing of government services. The public-sector has long been the staple of the black middle-class. This evolved partly because wages were lower in the public sector before the emergence of public-sector unions; partly because, in an era of affirmative action, the government could more easily control its own employment practices than those in the private sector; and partly because it was useful to put a black face on such governmental functions as corrections and social services (in contrast to the situation in the uniformed services which remained a bastion of white privilege). Today 21.2 percent of all black workers are public employees, compared with 16.3 percent of non-black workers.[xxvii] As a result, blacks are disproportionately affected by the downsizing of government and the outsourcing of government services.[xxviii] Not only that, but as Glen Ford has said in his radio commentary, “The fact that Blacks are disproportionately represented in government employment makes the entire public sector vulnerable to attack, not just because billionaires like the Koch brothers back Tea Party politicians, but because huge sections of the white public are prepared to withhold solidarity for racial reasons.”[xxix] Furthermore, racist stereotypes feed the image of government workers as inefficient and unproductive, thereby providing justification for outsourcing these services.

Free Trade. The swoosh that we heard after the passage of the NAFTA, and the hemorrhaging of blue-collar jobs and downward pressure on wages, are race-neutral but have had disproportionate impact on blacks. Just at the time that they finally secured a foothold in such industries as textiles, automobiles, and steel, millions of these jobs have been exported to low-wage counties.

Neoliberal immigration policy. As was the case during the two World Wars, blacks have always made their greatest strides when immigration was in low ebb. Coming on the heels of the Civil Rights Revolution, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which eliminated the national origins quotas instituted in 1924, triggered the influx of over 30 million immigrants, mostly from Latin America and Asia. Contrary to the standard cant—that immigrants take jobs that blacks don’t want—immigrants have made inroads in such coveted job sectors as construction, manufacturing, the hotel and leisure industry, and the healthcare industry. Note that the post-65 immigration was not advanced by liberals or by immigrant advocacy groups, but rather by free-market economists who contended that immigration would offset declining birth rates, depress wages, undercut unions, dampen inflation, increase consumption, and help pay for the retirement pensions of baby boomers.[xxx] Let me be clear. Immigration has been a huge boon to the national economy, and of course, to immigrants themselves who often are refugees from neoliberal projects in their countries of origin. However, the conclusion is unavoidable that, as in the past, the influx of tens of millions of immigrants has been detrimental to African Americans and other low-wage earners, including immigrant workers themselves.[xxxi]

Gentrification. Cities across the nation are not being gentrified because yuppies have discovered the charms of city life. Rather, it reflects major shifts in the global economy, not to speak of the schemes of politicians and developers. The result has been the reclamation of black neighborhoods previously abandoned by white flight to the suburbs. No surprise that recent results from the 2010 Census indicate a substantial decline of blacks in cities across the nation, including Detroit, Chicago, Oakland, Cleveland, New York, and even Atlanta.[xxxii]

Nor is this because blacks have belatedly discovered “the brass ring” of the suburbs, as William Frey, a demographer at Brookings, has suggested. As Thomas Sugrue wrote in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, “Those blacks heading outward from Detroit aren’t moving to all suburbs equally. Rather, they move into places with older houses, rundown shopping districts and declining tax revenues.” Sugrue aptly terms this “secondhand suburbia,” a far cry from the situation when whites fled urban neighborhoods for their dream house in thriving suburban communities with rising real estate values.[xxxiii]

Racial/Class Cleansing. The ugly flip side of gentrification has been the eviction of poor blacks from urban neighborhoods across the nation. This is another neoliberal policy that began under Clinton and Cisneros through HOPE VI, and has led to the demolition of approximately 150,000 units of public housing across the nation. In the case of Chicago, entire public housing communities have been obliterated, with the conspicuous silence of Barack Obama and the complicity of Valerie Jarrett. In other cities like Atlanta, the demolished public housing was occupied by stable working-class families, but sat on real estate that was ripe for development. Furthermore, social scientists have provided spurious scientific legitimacy for the relocation of blacks from central cities, since its purpose, or so they claim, is to “deconcentrate poverty” and to “augment social capital.”[xxxiv]

Schooling. What does schooling have to do with neoliberalism?  A great deal. In the eyes of the new Malthusians, the neoliberal city could be ever more beautiful, and real estate ever more valuable, if we could eliminate the parasitic population of poor blacks (as opposed to immigrants who are seen as bringing energy, vitality, and economic activity to declining neighborhoods). Good schools are essential for attracting young, affluent buyers to gentrifying neighborhoods. Ironically, No Child Left Behind provides a mechanism for closing down “failing schools,” usually over the rage and tears of parents who do not want to give up their neighborhood schools and are not offered alternatives that are any better. Thus the charter school movement, essentially a piecemeal privatization of public education, fits perfectly within the neoliberal agenda.[xxxv]

Mass Incarceration. “The carceral state,” as Loic Wacquant calls it, involves the incarceration of some 2.3 million people, two-thirds of whom are black and Latino men. More than 7 million Americans are behind bars, on probation, or on parole. Few analysts have connected the dots between mass incarceration and gentrification, but even more important than luxury housing and good schools are safe neighborhoods. This is the logic behind aggressive policing, “weed and seed policies” (the ballyhooed “community policing” initiated under Clinton), stop and frisk policies, and the targeting of minority males for marijuana arrests. As Harry Levine has shown, between 1997 and 2007 the New York City police have targeted minority neighborhoods and arrested over 400,000 males for possessing small amounts of marijuana.[xxxvi] The end result of the carceral state, with its mandatory sentencing and three-strike provisions, has been to produce a class of “marked men” who are condemned to joblessness and poverty. As Michelle Alexander argues, this has devastating effects on families, condemning another generation of black children to growing up in poverty.[xxxvii] Many states deny the franchise to felons, an ostensibly race-neutral mechanism that, like the poll tax and literacy tests of yore, disfranchise large numbers of black voters.

In short, neoliberalism is a racist project. Not only does it rely upon racism for its justification and execution, but its burden falls particularly heavily on blacks, exacerbating the racial divide on which it prospers.


If my contention is right, and race has played a central role in the undoing of a century of reform, then the Left had better figure out how to navigate the convoluted waters of race in the 21st century. As Michael K. Brown has wisely written, “Racism cannot be removed by ignoring it, despite the ideology of a color-blind society; nor will black and white workers comprehend a common fate by sublimating race to class. To do so is to succumb to the myopia of the racial liberals and radicals of the New Deal.”[xxxviii] Brown was alluding to the New Deal liberals and radicals who failed to address massive discrimination in labor markets and within unions, thereby excluding blacks from the social insurance programs that are the hallmark of the welfare state. As Jesse Jackson observed, “a black mask has been put on the face of poverty,” thereby confounding the radical project.[xxxix] This is why “poverty” has disappeared from political discourse, as Republican and Democratic candidates, including our “first black President,” vie to be “the President of the middle class.”

As I commented at the outset, there are those on the Left who see race as a distraction or impediment to the larger project of class transformation. Granted, it is an impediment, but whose fault is that and how is it to be overcome? The Right has been ingenious in playing the race card over the last half-century, and if the Left is going to prevail, it will have to trump that race card with one of its own. Progressives and their allies in labor can begin by confronting their own complicity in a racial division of labor that privileged white men above all others. To paraphrase Justice Brennan, they need to engage race in order to transcend it. Only then will it be possible to restore “poverty” and “inequality” to political discourse. To build coalitions across racial and class lines. And to advance a political agenda that can effectively challenge class power and neoliberal rule.

I am mindful of the argument that there are bigger fish to fry: the ascendancy of global capitalism, imperialist wars, wage polarization, the attack on the welfare state, the simultaneous upward distribution of money to the haves and the shredding of the safety net for the have-nots, the auctioneering of our democracy to the highest bidder, and yes, the undoing of a century of reform. Against that agenda, there is a temptation to put behind “old battles” and to get “beyond race.” The problem is that all of these “larger” issues, not to speak of the crucial question of who governs, are enmeshed with race and racism. Indeed, the racial divide that is the legacy of slavery has been the Achilles heel of American democracy, of the noble movement for labor rights, and of valiant attempts of generations of Leftists to advance a progressive agenda. It follows that the struggle against neoliberalism and the struggle for racial justice must go hand in hand.


[i] Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary D. Edsall, “When the official subject is presidential politics, taxes, welfare, crime, rights or values, the real subject is race,” The Atlantic (May 1991), Vol. 267, Issue 5: 53. The article was a synopsis of their book, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics (New York: Norton, 1992). For a critical interpretation of this book, see Adolph Reed Jr. and Julian Bond, “Equality: Why We Can’t Wait,” The Nation (December 9, 1991):733-37. Also in the same issue, Richard A. Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, “Race and the Democrats”: 737-40.

[ii] Ibid., 62.

[iii] Gertrude Jaeger Selznick & Stephen Steinberg, “Social Class, Ideology, and Voting Preference: An Analysis of the 1964 Presidential Election,” in Structured Social Inequality, Celia S. Heller, ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1968): 216-26.

[v] Kevin P. Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1969): 25.

[vi] Edsall and Edsall: 62.

[vii] Stephen Eric Bronner, “Notes on the Counter-Revolution,” Logos 2011: Vol. 10, Issue 1: 4.

[viii] Edsall and Edsall: 62.

[ix] Ibid., 7.

[x] Stephen Steinberg, “Poor Reason: culture still doesn’t explain poverty,” Web edition of the Boston Review (January 2011):

[xi] See Christopher Bonastia, Knocking on the Door: The Federal Government’s Attempt to Desegregate the Suburbs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

[xii] Material in this paragraph is excerpted from my book, Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001): 110-12. Also my piece on “Nathan Glazer and the Assassination of Affirmative Action,” New Politics (Summer 2003):

[xiii] David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 2007).

[xiv]Nancy MacLean, Freedom Is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006): 218-36.

[xv] Ibid., 227.

[xvi] Ibid., 230.

[xvii] Ibid., 235. James Kilpatrick went so far as to say that the equalitarians were “worse racists—much worse racists—than the old Southern bigots,” and that “the bureaucrats of HEW have done more to destroy good race relations in the past ten years than the Ku Klux Klan did in a century.” Ibid., 236.

[xviii] Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, Tenth Anniversary Edition (New York: Basic Books, 1995).

[xix] Adolph Reed, Jr., “Looking Backward,” The Nation (November 28, 1994): 661-62.

[xx] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Family and Nation (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1986): 42.

[xxi] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Conference Proceedings, Daedalus, “The Negro American,” Vol. 95:1 (Winter 1966): 288-89.

[xxii] David P. Bryden, “The False Promise of Compromise,” The Public Interest (Winter 1998): 55; Richard Kahlenberg, The Remedy (New York: Basic Books, 1995): 118-19. Among the others whom Kahlenberg cites as supporting a class-based affirmative action are Jack Kemp, George Pataki, Christine Todd Whitman, and Bill Clinton. Stephen Steinberg, “Confronting the Misuse of Class-Based Affirmative Action,” New Politics (Winter 1999):

[xxiii] Bob Herbert, “The Ugly Side of the GOP,” New York Times (September 25, 2007): and

[xxiv]Linda Gordon, “How Welfare Became a Dirty Word,” Chronicle of Higher Education (July 20, 1994): B-1. Jane Quadagno, The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty (New York: Oxford, 1995); Michael K Brown, Race, Money, and the Welfare State (Ithaca: Cornell, 1999); Kenneth J. Neubeck and Noel A. Cazenave, Welfare Racism: Playing the Race Card Against America’s Poor (New York: Routledge, 2001); The Ellen Reese, Backlash Against Welfare Mothers, Past and Present (Berkeley: University of California, 2005); Betty Reid Mandell, “The Crime of Poverty,” New Politics (Winter 2011):

[xxv] See Miguel A. Centeno and Joseph N. Cohen, “The Rise and Fall of Neoliberalism,” scheduled for publication in the Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 37 (August 2011). Also, Catherine Kingfisher and Jeff Maskovsky, “The Limits of Neoliberalism,” Critique of Anthropology, Vol. 28 (2008): 115-24.

[xxvii] Steven Pitts, “Black Workers and the Public Sector,” UC Berkeley Labor Center (April 4, 2011):

[xxviii] Kirk Johnson, “Black Workers Bear Big Burden As Jobs in Government Dwindle.” New York Times (February 2, 1997): Algernon Austin, “Uneven pain–Unemployment by metropolitan area and race,” Economic Policy Institute (June 8, 2010): Glen Ford, “Black Jobs Disappearing at Depression-Era Rates,” Black Agenda Radio:

[xxix] Glen Ford, “The Blackenization of Public Sector Employment,” Black Agenda Radio Commentaries (March 16, 2011):

[xxx] Julian L. Simon, “The Case for Greatly Increased Immigration,” Public Interest 102 (Winter 1991): 89-103. See also Ben J. Wattenberg & Karl Zinsmeister, “The Case for More Immigration,” Commentary 89 (April 1990): 19-25.

[xxxi] Stephen Steinberg, “Immigration, African Americans, and Race Discourse,” New Politics, Vol. 10:3 (Summer 2006): For a vigorous debate of this issue in the New Labor Forum, see Also James Petras, “Following the Profits and Escaping the Debts: International Immigration and Imperial-Centered Accumulation,” Dissident Voice (Aug. 8, 2006):

[xxxii] Haya El Nasser, “Black populations fall in major cities,” USA Today (March 22, 2011):

[xxxiv] Stephen Steinberg, “The Myth of Concentrated Poverty,” in The Integration Debate, ed. by Chester Hartman and Gregory D. Squires (New York: Routledge, 2010): 213-28, and “Social Capital: The Science of Obfuscation,” New Politics (Winter 2008): For a recent study of Atlanta, see Deirdre Oakley, Erin Ruel, and Lesley Reid, “Testimony To United States House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services, Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunities” (April 28, 2010):

[xxxv] Danny Weil, “Neoliberalism, Charter Schools and the Chicago Model,” Counterpunch (August 24, 2009): Jitu Brown, Eric (Rico) Gutstein, & Pauline Lipman, “Arne Duncan and the Chicago Success Story: Myth or Reality?” from Rethinking Schools Online:; Paul Tough. “The Harlem Project,” New York Times Magazine (March 20, 2004).

[xxxvii] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010): 59, 174-5. Loic Wacquant, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

[xxxviii] Michael K. Brown, “Race in the American Welfare State: The Ambiguities of ‘Universalistic’ Social Policy Since the New Deal,” in Adolph Reed, Without Justice for All (Boulder: CO: Westview, 1999): 122.

[xxxix] Ibid., 93.

Stephen Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Urban Studies at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He contributes frequently to New Politics, and his most recent book, Race Relations: A Critique, was published by Stanford University Press in 2007. Thanks to Noel Cazenave, Martin Eisenberg, Jeff Maskovsky, and David Wellman for their thoughtful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.


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