This essay examines cultural representations of race and “parasitism” deployed in attacks against public employees during the Great Recession. Beginning in 2009, a chorus of critics charged that unionized public employees were becoming, in the words of Rush Limbaugh, “parasites of government,” dependent subjects that consumed tax dollars and productive labor to subsidize a profligate lifestyle. Such narratives of parasitism have long been racialized and gendered; subjects marked as “welfare queens” and “illegal aliens,” among others, have been similarly condemned as freeloaders who feed off the labor of hardworking (white) taxpayers.
By analyzing political cartoons, television shows, political advertisements, and speeches, we demonstrate how constructions of parasitism have become transposed onto white workers, including emergency workers and teachers, who have traditionally been exempt from such charges. These attacks reflect the most recent development of an antistatist politics that had historically assailed the redistributive state through its association with racialized dependents. Now certain white beneficiaries of state action have been absorbed within the same cultural and political logic. During the current age of inequality, the state-sponsored “affirmative action for whites” promised since the New Deal is no longer guaranteed.