(The following is an edited extract from a new essay in the 20th anniversary re-issue of the authors’ book, Racial Formation in the United States, 3rd edition (New York: Routledge, 2014).)
The hegemony of neoliberal economics is matched and underwritten by the racial hegemony of colorblindness. In the U.S., neoliberalism is as much a racial project as a class project. Although it was developed by big capital, it owes its ascent to the mass electoral base that only right-wing racial ideology could provide. It is the convergence of neoliberalism with colorblindness—the right-wing racial ideology of the post-civil rights era—that accounts for the success of neoliberalism.
In order to acquire a mass base, neoliberalism had to undo the New Deal coalition, which had held power—under both Democratic and Republican administrations—from the 1930s to the 1970s. The New Deal had been politically and morally complicit with Jim Crow and indeed could not have been implemented without deference to the “solid South.” But in the post-World War II period, and in many ways because of the war itself, that complicity was no longer politically viable. The Black Movement challenged it and ultimately overthrew it, splitting the Democratic Party in the process and transferring the South, as Lyndon Johnson lamented, to the Republican column.
The rise of neoliberalism in the United States depended on the containment of the political challenge of the Black Movement and other social justice movements: other movements of people of color, the Feminist Movement, and eventually the environmental and LGBTQ movements, as well.
Containment meant more than restricting the reach of demands for greater racial equality and for a vastly expanded democracy. It also meant resisting the demands of the 1960s movements for the redistribution of wealth and power. The threat that the Black Movement and its allies posed to the New Deal coalition was quite severe. It involved the prospect of a full-fledged social democratic system in the United States, serious commitments to full employment, substantial curtailment of U.S. imperial adventures, and recognition of race- and gender-based demands for full-scale social equality and inclusion.
Capital, the Republican Party, and the Right Wing of the Democratic Party all united against those demands. Colorblind politics were developed from about 1970 as the post-civil rights racial ideology of this new coalition, this new power-bloc. As colorblindness became hegemonic, this new racial ideology incubated and buttressed neoliberalism, as well.
Genealogy of Colorblind Politics
During the 1970s, neoliberal politics was invented through a series of experiments with racial reaction. These experiments took form as “massive resistance,” the rise of the “New Right,” and neoconservatism.
Nothing in the early phases of racial reaction pointed toward what would become “colorblind” racial ideology. The initial response to civil rights demands had been driven by racist rage and full-throated rejectionism in the form of massive resistance. After segregation was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court, southern states and local governments sought to outflank Brown and the decisions that followed it through a strategy of education privatization. (Incidentally, massive resistance anticipated many of today’s battles over public education, engineering closures of public school systems and establishing private, largely White, schools.)
But the massive resistance approach, for the most part, collapsed quickly. It was opposed by the majority of Americans; private segregationist groups, it turned out, could not afford to dispense with public education; and the federal government acted to undo massive resistance, albeit unevenly. In response to this failure, the organized opposition to civil rights reform had to regroup.
White supremacists had to make strategic concessions to win allies outside the South and to operate effectively within the national party system (both parties). The core task they faced was developing a New Right. This required what we call rearticulation. This concept refers to the ideological appropriation of elements of an opposing position.
In the early post-civil rights years, the New Right learned to make use of the deep-seated racism of the White working and middle classes, without explicitly advocating racial “backlash.” The rise of code word strategies was the first attempt at this. It was an effort to race-bait less explicitly, while making full use of the traditional stereotypes. Code words like “get tough on crime” and “welfare handouts” reasserted racist tropes of Black violence and laziness, often without having to refer to race at all.
But the use of code words was ultimately inadequate. Code words could not mobilize a mass base for racial reaction, especially one that would incorporate not only Whites of the Jim Crow South but also centrist Whites across the nation.
In order to reach out further, the New Right developed the ideologically grounded reverse racism (or reverse discrimination) framework. This took shape over the 1970s. Reverse racism had several advantages over code words. The most important of these was the claim that racially inclusive reform policies—notably affirmative action—were unfair to Whites: they were portrayed as “punishing” Whites who were merely seeking a job, admission to a university, or a federal contract. In seeking to overcome the legacy of past racism, it was charged, ostensibly anti-racist policy and state actions were themselves guilty of racism with Whites as the “new victims.”
Racism was thus recast as something that could affect anyone, something that was practiced as much by Blacks as by Whites. A whole century of White supremacy—with Whites as the subjects of racism, and Blacks and other people of color as the objects—was thus peremptorily dismissed. And that was only taking the post-emancipation period into consideration. When the entire structural legacy of slavery was taken into account—massive theft of life and labor, ongoing denigration and exclusion, not to mention torture and terror past and present—the chutzpah of the “reverse racism” claim mounted to the very heavens.
The concept of “reverse racism” was presented to Whites as an effort to protect them from “unfair” claims on the part of Blacks or other people of color. The agenda was to consolidate and expand the New Right’s mass base among Whites without appealing to racist tropes as the code words approach had done. Attacking affirmative action and other civil rights reforms as unfair to Whites (as “racial quotas” and supposedly “preferential treatment” of non-Whites, etc.) worked to defend existing systems of racial inequality and domination much more effectively than use of code words.
Colorblind racial ideology came later still. It represented a step beyond “reverse racism” because it repudiated the concept of race itself. Colorblindness built upon earlier articulations of post-civil rights right-wing ideology. Of course, code words did not disappear. Reverse racism charges did not disappear. Colorblindness simply advanced racist ideology to the next level, one premised on the concept of race “neutrality.”
To dismiss the immense sociohistorical weight of race, to argue that it is somehow possible, indeed imperative, to refuse race consciousness and simply not to take account of it, is by any rational standard a fool’s errand. But because colorblindness more successfully rearticulated Black Movement demands, because it expressed a sort of anti-racism “lite,” an aspirational post-racism, and most of all because it overlapped with the repudiation of the welfare state and was consistent with neoliberal individualism, colorblind racial ideology turned out to have political legs.
Colorblindness advanced the neoliberal agenda piece by piece through successive presidential administrations, both Republican and Democratic. Reagan’s efforts were crucial. His iconic comment in his first inaugural address—“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”—distilled a political orientation that was hostile to civil rights, the welfare state, taxation (though Reagan did raise taxes several times), and unions.
George H. W. Bush maintained this approach, balancing the “mainstream” Republicanism of Wall Street with the New Right ferocity of his political gunslinger, Lee Atwater. Atwater became famous for the Willie Horton political ads (on behalf of Bush) and the “White hands” ads (on behalf of reactionary North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms). These attacks on presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and on North Carolina senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt invoked centuries-old racist themes: the criminal Black predator and the unqualified (presumably “lazy” and undeserving) Black worker, respectively. Without explicitly stating it, Republicans were coming out in opposition to civil rights and to racial equality while reframing themselves as the White people’s party.
Bill Clinton brought a more Democratic version of neoliberalism to the political arena. He campaigned for reelection in 1996 on a promise to “end welfare as we know it.” Propelled by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson had expanded the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. Thus the Great Society had partially undone the New Deal’s exclusion of Blacks and Latinos from the welfare system. Commonly known as “welfare,” AFDC was the principal source of federal aid for poor people. It was the only federal program that directly provided cash to Blacks. AFDC had evolved out of the Social Security Act of 1935, slowly developing over the decades into its Great Society version of cash support for the poor and excluded, though still heavily stigmatized. Clinton sought White support by attacking this program.
Although it assisted many Whites as well, AFDC was seen as a Black program. It had always been means-tested, unlike Social Security itself and Medicare, which were “entitlements.” It was punitive and was subject to constant right-wing stigma, but it stood in sharp contrast to the 1935 law, which had been crafted by Dixiecrats and western Republicans to exclude Black and Brown recipients, in provisions FDR had never questioned.
Clinton’s proposal substituted for AFDC the much more punitive Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PWORA), which effectively privatized the welfare system. This was neoliberalism with a Democratic face.
George W. Bush implemented a hardcore neoliberal agenda that outdid Reagan on several fronts. He attempted to privatize Social Security. His effort failed, but only because it sought to apply the same rough treatment to an entitlement valued by Whites that Clinton had successfully applied to a program associated with Blacks.
Obama has also been under constant pressure to restrict entitlements, and he has sometimes capitulated to this pressure. Well-aware of the cauldron of racist animus that bubbles beneath the hegemonic racial ideology of colorblindness, Obama has avoided racial politics as far as possible. And like Clinton, he has deployed a more liberal version of neoliberalism, so to speak. We can question his judgment, but like him, we must recognize both the hegemony of colorblindness and the hegemony of neoliberalism—in other words, the combined power of structural racism and capital.
In its abandonment of all egalitarian social policy commitments in favor of a “free market” ideology (which was anything but free in practice), in its repudiation of the welfare state, in its passionate embrace of market fundamentalism, neoliberalism struck at the heart of the Black Movement’s demands for economic redistribution and political inclusion. Adopting the evolving racial “common sense” of colorblindness, neoliberalism was able to build a mass base composed of working- and middle-class Whites who were threatened by racial equality and racial democracy.
These Whites, or their parents and grandparents, had benefited from the welfare state under the New Deal when it was a Whites-only affair (and when it was quite anti-immigrant as well). But when the Black Movement and its allies sought to extend the welfare state to communities of color—when in the mid-1960s they sought to lift New Deal restrictions on social investment in those communities— many Whites got off the freedom train.
Neoliberalism gave its adherents permission to ignore the “others”: the darker nations, the poor, both of the United States and the entire planet. It required colorblind racial ideology for this purpose. The containment of civil rights was not the goal of the neoliberal project. Indeed the neoliberal objective was larger than that. It was to dismantle the welfare state, to limit taxation and other forms of regulation of capital, and to ensure the docility and desperation of the “others”: the poor, the workers who were increasingly people of color but also White people, women, and even the middle classes.
Toward A Market-Based Hegemony
This was the neoliberal agenda. Restricting the welfare state, abandoning and punishing the poor, the neoliberal argument went, was not about race, since we are all colorblind now. These policies were presented as an effort to treat everyone alike, to apply the same market-based rules to all. If you disagreed with this, you were the “real racist.”
Neoliberalism required a racial ideology that repudiated the movement agenda of state-enforced equality and the extension of democratic rights to people of color (women, labor, imperial subjects, LGBTQ people). The exhortation to be colorblind avoided a regression to overt White supremacy or a reversion to explicit policies of Jim Crow segregation. Repelling, repressing, and rearticulating the Black Movement’s (and allied movements’) agendas would not be enough for this purpose.
In order to achieve hegemony for the neoliberal project of reinforced social inequality in a U.S. rid of its welfare state, with all the redistributive dimensions of social rights finally repudiated, it would be necessary not only to oppose demands for racial justice and racial democracy; it would be necessary to take race off the table. It would be necessary to become “colorblind.”