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  • Race, Class, and the Neoliberal Scourge
  • Lester Spence (bio)

Neoliberalism, the broad set of ideas positing the market and market-centered values as the ultimate “civilizing” agent at home and abroad, has now structured our society for forty years. Ever since it began its gradual ascendance in 1973, we have experienced a marked increase in income inequality, witnessed the slow death of the labor union movement, and keenly felt a growing sense of anxiety. The task of the American Left has never been simpler and clearer—it’s to reconstitute the very idea of the public, in the hope that this reconstitution will generate a large-scale movement against neoliberalism.

As they seek to put flesh on the bones of this anti-neoliberal project, some point to the worsening of economic inequalities following Obama’s election (and reelection) in arguing we should turn away from identity politics and back to class politics, this time with a spiritually informed base.

I disagree. Race plays a prominent role in two aspects of the neoliberal turn—the rollback of progressive taxes and the rollback of welfare. We do need a more spiritually informed politics, but given how important the local terrain is in our political struggle, we need to understand the way “identity” and “class” politics come together.

Neoliberal Attacks on Taxes and Welfare

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Neoliberalism’s exaltation of market-centered values has created a distorted moral economy that elevates prosperity above all else. To resist this neoliberal turn, we need an analysis of how identity and class politics come together.

The modern anti-tax movement began in California in 1978 with the passage of Prop 13. The proposition capped property taxes and made it impossible to pass tax increases in the state legislature without the support of a supermajority of state legislators. Prop 13 significantly reduced the revenue local governments need to provide public services and to educate public school students from kindergarten to graduate school. Two scholars, David Sears and Jack Citrin, studied the Prop 13 vote. In Tax Revolt: Something for Nothing in California, they report that the best predictors of support were neither class-based, nor party-based, nor even ideologically based. The best predictor was racial attitudes. The more “racially resentful” an individual was, the more likely he or she was to vote for Prop 13.

Over the past several decades, support for welfare has dropped like a rock while support for workfare has increased, even in the face of the recent economic crisis. This is because people tend to associate welfare with black women—a political project that fuses what we think of as “identity politics” with “class politics.” In recent years, as a result of the pernicious 1996 Personal Responsibility Work Opportunity Restoration Act, individual states have competed against each other in a race to the bottom to see which state can be the hardest on its welfare recipients. The same dynamic happens within states at the local level, because there’s not only first-order devolution (where the federal government makes the states responsible for administering the program) but also second-order devolution (where the states make individual counties and municipalities responsible). Research by Joe Soss, Richard Fording, and Sanford Schram—authors of Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race—shows definitively that states and counties/municipalities with higher percentages of African Americans tend to be far harsher on welfare recipients than states and counties/municipalities with lower percentages, and that individual case workers are far more likely to be punitive when dealing with black recipients.

However, behaving as if identity politics were the solution is fool’s gold as well. Within discriminated-against racial populations, class tensions reduce support for progressive political alternatives and stifle political critique. In 1973 black voters elected Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, with a great deal of fanfare. Less than three years after his election, Jackson responded to striking black union workers by arguing their strike was a white-sponsored plot against him, suppressing black support for them. It’s become increasingly common to hear black elected officials speak about the capacity of the (black) poor...


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