Biologically speaking, race isn’t real. But the concept of it, and its corollary systems of racialized oppression and bias, have influenced every moment of U.S. political and cultural history. White supremacist thinking dominates our culture in surprisingly nuanced ways, including through narratives that pit people against each other for the purpose of consolidating power and wealth. Enter the deeply raced idea of “makers and takers,” also known as “producerism,” which proposes that some Americans create value, while others are mere parasites. Since the Nixon and Reagan eras, it’s been weaponized to attack African American women. Its echoes are there in J.D. Vance’s bestselling 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, which Republican politicians have cited in justifying yet more cuts to the social safety net.1 And it was nakedly present in Donald Trump’s April tweet, complaining that officials in post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, “only take from USA.”2
A new book by Yale University American studies professor Daniel HoSang and University of Oregon political science professor Joseph Lowndes, Producers, Parasites, Patriots: Race and the New Right-Wing Politics of Precarity, offers a framework for interpreting and dismantling racist capitalist oppression without getting bogged down in this treacherous narrative of “makers and takers.”
The book’s authors also turn a sharp lens on the subtle ways that race gets used in the rise of the White nationalist Alt Right: how, even as these movements are defined by deep racism, there is often also a rhetorical commitment to multiculturalism, even in militias and neofascist groups. From Black Republicans taking on leadership roles in the Heritage Foundation, to White nationalists welcoming people of color, to militia groups invoking Black Lives Matter, this new book maps the political currents eddying beneath these visible movements. The authors spoke to PRA this spring.
PRA: This book provides a focused lens for interpreting these confusing movements and events. What made you decide to write it?
Daniel HoSang: We started this book right after the 2002 midterms, when we saw renewed attacks on public sector unions that used familiar language—the claim that mostly White public sector unions were becoming dependent, or parasitic, on the public purse, and that justified dismantling their pensions, contracts, etc. We were struck by how bipartisan this sensibility was, and the ways that both their Whiteness didn’t protect them from those attacks, and that [the attacks] wouldn’t be legible if not for a long history of [the Right] representing and then undermining women of color. We were also struck by the emergence of several key people of color in the emerging Northwest Far Right street scene, and then corollaries of that within the GOP. Trying to think about those two things together was really the start of the book.
Joseph Lowndes: It was also the beginning of a re-racialization of the White poor that was happening among both liberal and conservative writers and thinkers, from Charles Murray or Kevin Williamson on the Right, to Robert Putnam as a liberal. Explanations that were once reserved for Black and brown people now were being used to talk about the White poor: that they were culturally disorganized, morally compromised, maybe genetically inferior. It seemed like in this moment, where it’s kind of a new Gilded Age, race was being deployed to do all kinds of different work.
You talk about the attacks on public sector employees as one real-life result of the “parasitism” narrative—that this is why we hear so much about “lazy” and “greedy” teachers and federal workers. How does that narrative fold along racial lines?
JL: The language of parasitism and dependency is racialized. It can’t just be picked up and put down anywhere. It needs a racial reference. Blackness helps make it meaningful, legible for people. Having done that, you can stretch it out to broader groups. As Dan said, the public sector workers were ill-equipped to respond because they thought of themselves in producerist terms. The challenge that puts on us is to find ways to think about this that break out of the producer-parasite dyad.
There are certain categories of public workers and “White” people that are never included in the parasite narrative, like firefighters or police. How carefully are the lines drawn around who is and isn’t a parasite?
JL: These are deep New Deal (and probably before New Deal) ideas about deserving and non-deserving forms of state support. One side falls on relief and dependency, and the other on “earned entitlements.” People would laugh when Tea Partiers used to say “Hands off my Medicare” or “Hands off my Social Security,” but in a way that’s a coherent logic within the terms of what counts as legitimate or parasitic forms of state support.
DH: We are trying to be clear that parasitism doesn’t refer to any actual social location or relationship of dependence. In some cases, in California, even firefighters became subject to this logic! It’s provisional. They’re trying to see what might stick, who might be raised to stand in for this [parasite] figure so that they can earn consent for the longer-term project, which is continuing to undo state supports.
There’s a fascinating theme in the book that our understanding of our economic interests, or our sense of ourselves in relation to race and class, is shaped by politics—that no group has a fixed set of interests without first forging them inside of the political process. White supremacists have some handy tools to forge their constituents’ politics: parasitism, producerism, pathologizing the poor. What tools do we have to shape a more unifying narrative?
DH: Toward the end of the book we try to disrupt this reactionary, crude narrative of the producerist heartland railing against coastal elites. We show the Rural Organizing Project (ROP), in rural Oregon, organizing around issues of immigrant rights and detention, histories of anti-Black subordination, and also on the politics around the militia and public sector workers. Those aren’t just acts of allyship or solidarity, but are [indicators that ROP is] trying to link the increasing precarity of life outside of Oregon’s metropolitan centers to what’s happening in places like Ferguson and on the border. To help people think about their relationship [with the broader country] and generate new kinds of interests, alliances and expectations.
JL: The analysis of how this works can be important in terms of [how we view] organizing tools. So for instance, in Portland, Patriot Prayer—the leading street-Trumpist, proto-fascist group—had all these people of color. Joey Gibson, its head, identifies as non-White. His number two, Tiny Toese, is Samoan. There are African Americans all over the place in the Proud Boys nationally and in Patriot Prayer in particular. You have anti-racist and anti-fascist activists continually calling them “White supremacists,” and they kept saying, “No we’re not, of course we’re not, look around!” It’s important for us to not be stuck in these old frames, but to see how you can have these multiracial fascist alliances, because people are complicated. They have complicated backgrounds and can be drawn into different things. There are different kinds of authoritarianism and authoritarian violence, which don’t just organize themselves around race, or organize themselves around race in surprising ways. In order to counter-organize, you have to see clearly what’s actually going on without being stuck in old frames.
So politics look different for different groups.
JL: One easy caricature of our position is that it’s open, things can change, and people can adopt different identities. That’s not what we are saying at all. Parasitism—the reason it’s so available for [Hillbilly Elegy author] J.D. Vance, for instance, is that it has such a deep and rich set of meanings and practices attached to it. So forging a new kind of politics is not just a matter of changing the discourse in a superficial way, and hoping people will join on, but it’s through long struggles and new practices with different people working and thinking and acting together to break down old barriers and forge new coalitions.
How about the new national discourse about reparations? Could that take us in a more fruitful direction?
DH: There are communities in Eastern Oregon that are experiencing 25 percent unemployment, that are dependent on the state for the basic terms of their lives.3 But when the militia protestors start saying “Rural lives matter,” the reaction to it is, “That’s completely off limits and should be unspeakable.” Clearly it’s a co-optation of Black political movements and suffering, but we don’t want to foreclose the possibility of [the rural poor] linking up with Black social movements, agendas, and concrete policies, understanding that their precarity could be addressed through that. If we think about reparations as some notion of repair, of historic accountability, of looking to the past to help set an agenda for what is to be distributive, just and fair, then that has a lot of resonance with what communities in Oregon are trying to think about: what they have the right to claim and expect. So, without weighing in on the particulars of reparation policy proposals as such, but as a way of thinking about how the current crisis has to be interrogated through historic inheritances, I think that’s very generative.
Absent those much more imaginative political traditions, these White communities don’t have much to return to, other than a narrow form of producerism. And they end up occupying a wildlife refuge as a way to vent! Versus turning to traditions that have said, “We understand these forms of abandonment, this is nothing new, and we have a long history of summoning alternative possibilities.”
- Seung Min Kim and Kevin Robillard, “’Hillbilly Elegy’ author Vance urged to run for Senate,” Politico, January 8, 2018, https://www.politico.com/story/2018/01/08/ohio-senate-vance-brown-328565.
- Amy Sherman, “PolitiFact Florida: Donald Trump falsely tweets that Puerto Rico got $91 billion in hurricane aid,” Tampa Bay Times, April 8, 2019, https://www.tampabay.com/florida/2019/04/08/politifact-florida-donald-trump-falsely-tweets-that-puerto-rico-got-91-billion-in-hurricane-aid/.
- Several counties in rural Oregon experienced double-digit unemployment as recently as 2014.