“Parasites of Government”
Racialized Anti-statism and White Producerism
In early 2011, amid the mounting job losses and growing budget deficits of the Great Recession, the conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh took to the air to warn his listeners of a group of “freeloaders” who “live off of your tax payments and they want more. . . . They don’t produce anything. They live solely off the output of the private sector.” They were, he explained on another show, “parasites of government.” Wisconsin governor Scott Walker described members of the same group as the “haves” and “taxpayers who foot the bills” as the “have-nots.” Indiana’s governor, Mitch Daniels, labeled the group’s members “a new privileged class in America.”
The charges rehearsed by Limbaugh and others draw from an enduring discourse of producerism within U.S. political culture, in which the virtuous, striving, and browbeaten producer struggles to fend off the parasite, a dependent subject that consumes tax dollars and productive labor to subsidize a profligate and extravagant lifestyle. These representations have long been racialized and gendered; subjects marked as “welfare queens” and “illegal aliens” among others have been similarly condemned as freeloaders and parasites who feed off the labor of hardworking (white) taxpayers.
The focus of Limbaugh’s scorn, however, was a group of wage earners rarely represented on the latter side of the producerist/parasite divide: public-sector workers and their unions. While women and people of color constitute a larger proportion of state and municipal workers in comparison to the private sector, in 2011, 70 percent of this workforce was still identified as white and nearly a third were white men. Indeed, in Wisconsin, the site of the highest-profile attack on public-sector workers during the Great Recession, whites were slightly overrepresented in the public-sector workforce compared to the overall population of the state, while Black and Latino workers were slightly underrepresented. Yet their whiteness did not indemnify significant numbers of public-sector workers from these attacks. Emergency workers, city and county employees, teachers, and other school employees became increasingly criticized as parasitic—threats to the body politic. As Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty explained after the election, “Unionized public employees are making more money, receiving more generous benefits, and enjoying greater job security than the working families forced to pay for it with ever-higher taxes, deficits and debt.” These charges came from across the political spectrum, as Democratic governors including California’s Jerry Brown and New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Republicans such as New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Ohio’s John Kasich all maintained that taxpayers could no longer meet the allegedly insatiable demands of public-sector workers. Proposals to renegotiate or eliminate union contracts and to retract collective bargaining rights suddenly moved to the center of political debate in many states.
How did public-sector workers come so easily to symbolize the cause of the 2008 recession and thus become the object of widespread political attack? They reflect, we argue, the most recent development of a racialized anti-statist politics yoked to a long-term effort to restrain the social wage and to privatize public goods. The rise of the modern right in the United States was articulated through an antipathy to state power in which the redistributive state as a whole was stigmatized through its association with racialized dependents. With the demobilization of the Black freedom movement in particular and the withering of the welfare state in general, anti-statist projects have sought to extend this logic to white beneficiaries of state action. Thus, in the contemporary age of inequality, commitments to public benefits and subsidies to white households, workers, and families that were long guaranteed in the postwar era have become newly vulnerable.
We demonstrate this argument through an analysis of cultural representations of public-sector workers during the Great Recession, including syndicated political cartoons, television shows, political advertisements, and political speeches. These sources reveal the quotidian production of political identity and interest—the micropolitical processes that generate political meaning in everyday life—and explicate the cultural logics that make such identities and interests legible.
Race and the Ascendant Criticism of Public-Sector Workers
Political criticism of public-sector workers and labor unions has a long history, particularly among conservative groups and activists. As Steve Fraser and Joshua Freeman have contended, this opposition has been premised on a range of arguments, from the alleged threat they posed to principles of sovereign governance (which formed the basis of Franklin Roosevelt’s opposition to such unions) to their complicity in extending the reach and scale of the welfare state. Nelson Lichtenstein and Elizabeth Shermer maintain that “hostility to labor unions per se was a crystallizing impulse for the modern American Conservative movement . . . reaching back past the 1970s to the aftermath of the 1886 Haymarket Riot and through the 1920s American Plan, the backlash against Operation Dixie in the 1940s, and the political ascendancy of both Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.” Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, conservative policy organizations elaborated the case for policy reforms necessary to undermine the influence of public-sector unions and to shrink public-sector employment more generally, arguing that the “rent-seeking” behavior of such unions came at the expense of taxpayers’ interests.
Lichtenstein and Shermer explain that historically it has been the ideological and policy agenda of public-sector unions that conservative forces have rallied against: “social solidarity, employment stability, limits on the workplace power of corporate management, plus a defense of the welfare state, progressive taxation, financial regulation, and a government apparatus energetic enough to supervise the health and safety of millions of American workers and consumers.” In these arguments, public-sector unionism threatened a set of abstract principles—freedom of association and choice, government sovereignty, economic competitiveness, and a fear of corruption—viewed as fundamental to a free-market economy. Other opponents assailed public-sector unions as narrow interest groups seeking to unduly influence government policy for their own gain.
The recent uptick in anti-union sentiment, however, differs in several important ways from previous rounds of anti-union political attacks. Whereas earlier criticisms focused primarily on the structural relationships and interests that public-sector unions allegedly sought to exploit, the current attacks make moral and characterological claims about public-sector workers themselves. This emphasis on the ethical deficiencies of public-sector workers, central to all of the examples discussed below, represents a new terrain of political attack and critique. In these accounts, public-sector workers are not only opportunistic political interests but also cultural miscreants—a gluttonous class of people living beyond the rules that apply to others. To take one representative example from California, Steven Greenhut, a widely read columnist in the Orange County Register, alleged in a 2008 piece titled “Out of the Way, Peasants” that special license plates afforded to some government workers effectively exempted them from all driving laws: “California has about 1 million citizens who are literally above the law. Members of this group . . . can drive their cars as fast as they choose. They can drink a six-pack of beer at a bar and then get behind the wheel and weave their way home. . . . Chances are they will never have to pay a fine or get a traffic citation.” In his 2009 book Plunder! How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation, Greenhut states this claim plainly: “Yes rank has its privileges, and it’s clear that government workers have a rank above the rest of us.”
The association of public-sector workers with the state is central to these confrontations as well. In Wisconsin in 2011, Governor Walker insisted that he had no objections to private-sector unions and said that he would not support proposals that took aim at such workers. It was unionized government workers, he argued, whose wage and benefit gains came at the expense of the taxpayers he was elected to protect. Rush Limbaugh similarly insisted public-employee unions are “are not private sector union people. These are people that live off of your tax payments. And they want more. They want you to have to pay more taxes so that they continue in their freeloader gigs.” Thus, the new round of attacks on public-sector unions gained particular purchase by drawing on a broader politics of taxpayers’ rights and critiques of state excess.
These allegations draw on resonant themes in U.S. political culture of anti-statism, market-based individualism, and right-wing populism. As Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons and others have argued, the category of “lazy parasites” threatening the producerist ethic has almost always been imagined as a racialized class including mothers on welfare, immigrants, and the undeserving poor. White workers, especially those in public-sector jobs such as firefighters, teachers, and transit workers, have not been represented in these terms.
By closely examining a series of cultural representations about public-sector unions and workers during these debates, we can better understand the logic at work in making attacks on such unions so widely resonant. Producerism, long associated with whiteness and masculinity, has stood in contrast to parasitism, expressed most visibly through representations of people of color as dependent and self-indulgent. In the cultural representations we examine, opponents of public-sector workers have attempted to transpose the script of parasitism onto workers that have historically been exempt from such charges. Claims that public-sector unions and workers are parasitic on the body politic are only cognizable because of this history of racialized populism. They serve here to enlarge the population of workers and subjects who no longer have an automatic claim on the social wage.
To be clear, we do not argue that white public-sector workers are losing their whiteness in an embodied sense, or that these examples suggest that race is declining in social and political significance. White privilege and white supremacy continue to be powerful, dynamic forces in U.S. political culture, structuring life opportunities, vulnerability to violence and death, and differential access to power. These examples do not suggest that white workers are facing discrimination on the basis of race. Nor do these confrontations with white workers suggest that long-standing racialized political appeals are subsiding. Walker, for example, built much of his electoral base through such appeals to white suburban and rural areas of Wisconsin. We posit instead that the continued upward redistribution of wealth and state power that has accelerated since the Great Recession has lessened the economic guarantees and privileges that many white workers once took for granted. Discourses that long protected many white workers from such charges of parasitism and dependence are open to new deployments and articulations.
Defining Populist Producerism
The framing of public-sector workers and unions as parasitic on taxpayers rests on a long-standing discursive distinction between society’s “makers and takers,” to borrow a phrase made popular by Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Its success depends on the premise that populist politics—and the producerist ideology at its heart—flow from identifiable grievances by those who produce society’s wealth against those who consume it without giving back. This “producer ethic,” as Alexander Saxton called it, has roots in the Jeffersonian belief that the yeoman farmer, as neither a master nor a slave, was the proper subject of civic virtue, republican liberty, and self-rule. But it first emerged as a broad partisan identity in the antebellum era, where it expressed in the Democratic Party an opposition between white labor and those who would exploit it. Producerist ideology posited not an opposition between workers and owners but a masculine, cross-class assemblage connecting factions of the elite with poor whites both in cities and on the frontier in what Democratic Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton called “the productive and burthen-bearing classes” in opposition to those cast as unproductive and threatening, including bankers and speculators, slaves, and indigenous people. As such, producerism provided a template for subsequent political intersections of whiteness, masculinity, and labor that would include different groups and target different foes, but was always secured by a logic that described a fundamental division in society between those who create society through their efforts and those who are parasitic on, or destructive of, those efforts.
The division between producer and parasite, it should be stressed, does not correlate with production and nonproduction in any objective sense. The slaveowner was a celebrated element of the Jacksonian coalition, for example, while various forms of slave, contract, or dispossessed labor were reviled. In other words, one’s politics do not flow from one’s position as a producer. Rather, the very notion of producerism is generated by politics.
In various iterations, producerism has played a central role in U.S. political history. The People’s Party of the 1890s invoked the moral status of agricultural and industrial labor against Eastern financial elites. The famed labor anthem of the Industrial Workers of the World, “Solidarity Forever,” penned by Ralph Chaplin in 1915, includes the lines, “Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite / Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?” During the Great Depression it was the “economic royalists,” as President Franklin Roosevelt called them, who were seen to cause the economic crisis, with unions regarded as defenders of the public good. And other critics have pointed out that settler-colonial societies like the United States are by their nature parasitic. As J. Sakai has argued in Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat: “The myth of the self-sufficient, white settler family ‘clearing the wilderness’ and supporting themselves through their own initiative and hard labor, is a propaganda fabrication. It is the absolute characteristic of settler society to be parasitic, dependent upon the superexploitation of oppressed peoples for its style of life. Never has Euro-Amerikan society completely supported itself.”
Since the 1960s, however, it is the political right that has most often made populist appeals to producerism. Against the perceived racial liberalism of the mid-1960s, Alabama governor George Wallace and others like him forged a politics that expressed populism in terms at once racist and anti-government, contrasting “pointy-headed bureaucrats” and social engineers to “this man in the textile mill, this man in the steel mill, this beautician” in rants against busing, welfare, crime, and civil rights protest. In 1969, President Richard Nixon began using the terms “Silent Majority,” “forgotten Americans,” and “Middle America” to describe an aggrieved white majority squeezed by the unruly, dependent poor on one side and government elites on the other. Conservatives stoked political identity across the 1970s in blaming both government and the poor for the victimization of taxpayers and the moral decline of the country.
Numerous liberal writers, including Thomas and Mary Edsall and Todd Gitlin, have lamented this shift in populism from left to right. For them, the natural political identity of workers and farmers expressed in opposition to monopoly capitalists, bankers, and speculators was relinquished to the right as the moral language of labor was replaced with excessive concern for identity—be it race, nationality, gender, or sexuality—fragmenting a coherent left identity. Such an understanding fails in two ways, however. First, identity has always been central to populism insofar as it has expressed whiteness and masculinity as central features of who is included in populist rhetoric. Second, a simple story of a rightward shift misses the ways in which, from the Jacksonian era forward, producerist politics have always retained elements of racialized demonization, be it the anti-Black and anti-indigenous politics of the Jacksonians, the anti-Chinese campaigns of white labor in the 1880s, the anti-immigrant sentiment in the early twentieth century, or the exclusion of Black workers from New Deal programs.
Populist identity distinguishes itself not just against those seen as exploitive elites above and parasitic dependents below but also against elements in society depicted as imprudent, excessive, wasteful, and indolent. Nineteenth-century minstrel shows, for instance, portrayed Black people not merely as lazy but also as sexually promiscuous, voracious, and frolicsome. As David Roediger, Eric Lott, and Michael Rogin have all demonstrated, part of minstrelsy’s appeal was in identification and desire as much as in demonization and abjection. White workers under the yoke of industrial discipline and Victorian morality in the nineteenth century were drawn to the stage shows of blacked-up whites performing songs and skits that were playfully erotic, that lampooned elites, and that celebrated the avoidance of work. Yet blackface served to resecure the boundaries of white, bourgeois morality by serving as an exaggerated symbol of what had to be rejected by the producerist ethic, while stoking envy and rage against actual people of color.
The deep logic of producerism thus structures representations of its negation, the parasite, which since the 1960s in particular has been constructed in highly racialized and gendered terms—the mother on welfare, an immigrant draining public coffers, the criminal “coddled” by liberal judges, or the undeserving recipient of affirmative action. These scripts animate the attack on public-sector unions and workers, continually contrasting its version of the producer—in this case the taxpayer and private-sector worker–with public unions and workers. As we demonstrate, these workers are depicted as unproductive, wasteful, excessive, and indolent; they indulge in the envied pleasures of shorter working hours, long vacations, and early retirement. They are cognizable precisely because they invoke a longer genealogy of the discourse of racial parasitism and producerism, and its representation of fiscal burdens. Framed this way, unionized public-sector workers become threats to taxpayers—not merely economically but socially and psychologically as well.
Key to the successful development of populist anti-statism has been its selective, racial deployment, avoiding discussion of forms of state authority and distribution that have been enjoyed by the great majority of the white electorate since the New Deal, such as Social Security, Medicare, and government-secured home loans. Attacks on the state from the right were aimed originally at school desegregation after the Brown v. Board of Education decisions, and later busing, fair housing, anti-discrimination law, and affirmative action; and in response to programs seen to favor poor people of color, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Medicaid. Conservatives extended this strategy by targeting other figures of racial vulnerability, such as immigrant children in public schools.
At each stage of the development of anti-statism, a racialized line separating the deserving from the undeserving was drawn to bolster its claims. Now, the logic of anti-statism has become so pervasive, and its success against everything from busing to affirmative action to welfare so thorough, that advocates have begun to turn it against new targets. Political elements made vulnerable in class terms can now be attacked via racial logic. The line between the deserving and undeserving has been moved such that a large number of white workers now fall on the latter side of the line as “takers.”
This transformation is rooted in a generation of neoliberal economic restructuring, as cuts in income-transfer payments and reductions in property, income, and capital gains taxes shifted more of the responsibility for funding public services from corporations and the wealthy onto middle- and low-income workers. Households faced with flattening wages and rising levels of debt increasingly came to demand tax relief of their own as a way to safeguard their income, giving rise to a populist tax revolt. In this context, the public sector itself became stigmatized as a drain on the budgets of ordinary workers rather than as a keystone of social equity and income security and mobility. As a result, a broad range of income-transfer programs, including welfare, assistance to immigrants, and other public-health, education, and employment initiatives, became defunded, most often by the attacking of their beneficiaries as undeserving and parasitic.
The financial crisis of 2008 represented a culmination of these developments. For many years, revenue-starved states and municipalities that were unable to offer meaningful wage increases to their employees instead promised expanded retirement and health benefits to such workers that were less straining to their budgets in the short run. But as government revenues plummeted after the housing and banking crisis, and with most other income-transfer programs already eviscerated, public-sector workers and their benefits became subject to new political scrutiny. The number of public-sector jobs declined significantly after the Great Recession; in 2018, the proportion of state and local employees in the civilian workforce was at its lowest level since 1967.
Public-sector employment has historically been an important source of economic mobility for women and people of color. In regions with large numbers of unionized public-sector workers, such as New York City, unionization substantially decreases race and gender pay disparities as a whole. Public-sector job losses during the Great Recession thus had a disproportionate impact on women workers and Black workers. According to the Economic Policy Institute, from 2007 to 2011 roughly 765,000 jobs were cut in state and local governments. Women held seven in ten of those jobs, and African Americans held two in ten. The sociologist Jennifer Laird points out that Black women become doubly disadvantaged under these conditions as they are overrepresented in a shrinking area of the economy while facing higher barriers to finding private-sector employment.
Nationally, however, Black public-sector workers are unionized at slightly lower rates than non-Black workers. To make public-sector workers the focus of public opprobrium, attacks could not single out workers of color alone, nor could they simply focus on structural or political critiques of unions. Instead, as we explore below, the claims turned on the alleged greed, excess, and moral failures of workers themselves, including white workers. The scripts of parasitism that have long justified the subordination of people of color have become available to stigmatize and represent some white workers to justify their exclusion from the social wage.
Parasitism as Gluttony
In order to fully understand the logic of the attack on public-sector unions, we need to comprehend the ways in which the identity of the productive, taxpaying citizen is brought into being and continually defended against threats to its integrity. This integrity, we argue, is economic, moral, and even bodily. Unions and government workers are represented as wasteful, excessive, festive, and grotesque threats to an independent, virtuous, sober, frugal subject. These qualities, evoking both envy and disgust, transform public-sector workers from productive citizens into social threats—not merely to public budgets but to the social order itself.
Cultural representations such as the editorial cartoons examined below are important forms of evidence, not because they permit claims about causality but rather because they express the political claims we analyze by casting into sharp relief the charges of parasitism, laziness, gluttony and destructiveness of the public-sector worker on behalf of the beleaguered host—the taxpaying citizen. Cartoons evoke visceral responses—laughter, disgust, outrage—to a political point the cartoonist seeks to make. The intended meanings of political cartoons are generally self-evident, which allows the analyst to focus on how the cartoon achieves its intended effect. Cartoons, which can be absorbed and understood quickly by readers, often enjoy broad circulation—particularly those in syndication. They act as snapshots—moments of temporarily fixed understandings of a political phenomenon.
For our argument, cartoons are an especially salient form of evidence. The contemporary attacks on public-sector workers we analyze dispense with claims about the political power of public unions over government functions or their likelihood of pulling electoral politics leftward, as was the case in conservative attacks on public unions in prior decades. The accusations leveled at these unions today depend less on sophisticated institutional and ideological arguments and more on the visceral description of indolence on the one hand and rapacity on the other, thus extending their appeal across previously established ideological boundaries.
To take one example, anti-union editorial cartoons commonly depict public-sector workers as massive entities—voracious, grotesquely fat, and even cannibalistic—in contrast to the diminutive taxpayer, often portrayed as “the little guy,” who is threatened, bullied, or simply overmatched. Such depictions demonstrate that it is not enough merely to present unions as politically and economically powerful. Obesity and cannibalism evoke deeper bodily fears and forms of abjection—threatening the very corporeal integrity of the subject. In these portrayals we also see the racial transposition in action. Racialized bodies, which underscore the cultural framing of unions, come to signify public-sector workers more generally.
Portrayals of unions as voracious destroyers circulated widely during the Chicago Teacher Union’s (CTU) strike in September 2012, directed in particular against union president Karen Lewis. During the nearly two-week strike, Lewis became the CTU’s most visible public figure not only in pressing for improvements in pay, working conditions, and job security but also in more broadly resisting the efforts of Mayor Rahm Emanuel to close dozens of schools and to reduce public control over the school system. We begin with an examination of depictions of Lewis, because she is both emblematic of public unions and Black. The logic of racial transposition, as we have argued, is that historic forms of anti-Blackness provide the template for attacking largely white targets. We can see how portrayals of Lewis rely on well-worn popular depictions of Black people in general and Black women in particular. Those same tropes appear in treatments of public-sector unions more generally.
Editorial cartoons during the strike consistently represented Lewis’s body as corpulent and insatiable. One cartoon by Lisa Benson syndicated by the Washington Post depicts Lewis shouting through a bullhorn, “WHAT DO WE WANT? WE WANT MORE!!” Lewis is shown standing on the back of a white man wearing a Cubs baseball cap and holding a sign that says “BROKE! Please Help!” Here Lewis, signifying the irrational, rapacious demands of the CTU and Chicago public-school teachers, is literally breaking the back of a helpless white Chicagoan.
An exemplary depiction was featured on the conservative blog site Chicago News Bench. It is a manipulation of a photo to depict Lewis as extraordinarily obese, holding a plate carrying a baby’s head. The caption reads, “Chicago Teacher’s Union President Karen Lewis wants to eat your children. With cheese and bacon.” The accompanying article reads in part: “This fat pig of a union bully doesn’t give a damn about the kids in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). She doesn’t care about their parents, either, many of whom had to scramble today to make arrangements for safety of their children.” We include it here less because of the image’s circulation—its intended audience is specifically Chicago-area conservatives—but rather because it so clearly elucidates the political–cultural appeal we describe.
While orality and associations with cannibalism were staples of blackface minstrelsy, they can also be elements of political signification more generally. As the political theorist Anne Norton has demonstrated in her work on political identity, “eating provides names and explanatory metaphors for relations of power.” Oral aggression, associated gluttony, and even cannibalism turn up repeatedly in depictions of public unions. The conservative columnist Michelle Malkin referred to Lewis as “Chicago thuggery personified” and a “union fat cat.” The online news site Chicago News Report, describing a talk Lewis gave at the Northwest Teaching for Social Justice Conference in Seattle in 2011, said that she was “apparently . . . possessed by the ghost of Moms Mabley” and that it was as if “an evil, comedic spirit had taken control of her mouth,” because of comments she made about Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Comments posted to a YouTube clip of that talk are instructive. One poster, directly making the link between bodily and professional discipline, wrote, “Well it’s tough to take someone seriously when they lack the self-control and discipline to manage their own health. It shows lack of character.” Another post links oral aggression to her role as Teacher’s Union official: “That’s not a woman, that’s a theme park—or a woman that ate a theme park. Her navel’s probably large enough to accomodate [sic] another classroom for 20 or more students.” A more explicit post links race hatred, weight, and cannibalism: “na na na na niiiiig can you imagine this woman teaching kids. I’d be fearful of her eating them.” Or quite directly: “WHY IS THIS GROTESQUE THE STEWARD OF AMERICA’S CHILDREN?”
Anonymous web postings such as these reveal the affective logic at work, as they allow their authors direct, uncensored expression. Here, a representative of a strong public-sector union is described in ways that show us how the producer is constituted as white, hardworking, virtuous, and threatened by the insatiability of public unions.
The associative links between Blackness, excess, and orality demonstrate the substratum of producerist identity in the examples above. But what is peculiar to this historical moment is the mobilization of producerism against political elements not directly associated with people of color. Indeed, the attack on public-sector unions requires a rhetoric that can cast white workers—once the unquestioned subjects of producerism—as parasitic outsiders. Accomplishing this identity shift has required a transformation of unions into grotesques.
Another cartoon from spring 2010 by syndicated cartoonist Sean Delonas, who had previously been accused of racism for a New York Post cartoon implying that Obama was a chimpanzee, appeared in the conservative City Journal accompanying an article titled “The Beholden State: How Public Unions Broke California.” Here, public unions are represented by an enormous pig—an animal symbolically associated with gluttony and filth—eating pizza, an ice cream cone, and a soda, telling a skeletal corpse representing the California taxpayer: “You’re just going to have to tighten your belt.” In this representation, public unions eat up resources needed to sustain life. It should be noted that what has been starved here is not the people of California but rather the individual taxpayer. In other words, the collective threatens to destroy the individual.
In another cartoon, this one by the popular syndicated cartoonist Mike Lester, the union does not merely devour public funds and thereby starve the taxpayer, but rather engages in direct cannibalism. The illustration depicts a “Gov. union worker” saying, “This is what democra-(urp!!)cy looks like” as he consumes the head of a proportionately miniature taxpayer. Lester’s cartoon, published at the height of the mass demonstrations at the Wisconsin state capitol in the winter of 2011, turns democratic contestation into oral aggression.
In both cartoons, eating underscores the fear of the destructive power of unions. It should also be noted that in these cartoons, the gluttonous union is a collective entity that destroys the individual taxpayer. Here, racial transposition occurs through use of the racialized discourse of aggressive parasitism as it is directed against white workers as well as Black. This is achieved affectively through the transfer and expansion of racial notions of orality and corpulence to a broader category of workers.
Parasitism as Idleness
A second important dimension in the discourse of parasitism emphasizes idleness and indolence, traits long used to justify the subordination of Black and brown laboring bodies. These themes are repurposed in recent representations of public-sector workers, who are similarly depicted as antithetical to the virtuous producer. Again, analyzing representations of these themes in popular culture reveals the particular logic through which they are constructed and made legible to wider publics.
In an April 2010 Saturday Night Live award-show parody skit titled “2010 Public Employee of the Year,” guest host Gabourey Sidibe (star of the 2009 film Precious) is cast as a St. Louis Department of Motor Vehicles employee named “Markeesha Odom.” Odom is the first to be introduced as a finalist for the award. The narrator explains she has been “twice named Missouri’s ‘Surliest and Least Cooperative’ state employee”; Sidibe scowls at the camera, hand on hip, lips pursed. Sidibe is then congratulated for working at a DMV facility with twenty-four employees who “went through an entire day without helping a single customer.”
SNL cast thirty-three-year-old Kenan Thompson, one of only two Black ensemble members, to play the award show’s host, “Desmond McCoy,” an Oakland bus driver and union member who retired on full benefits because of (clearly fraudulent) “job related stress.” Thompson’s character explains facetiously: “In these times of anti-tax hysteria and threats of government budget cuts, it’s important to remember that people with government jobs are like workers everywhere. Except for lifetime job security, guaranteed annual raises, early retirement on generous pensions and full medical coverage with no deductibles and office visit fees or co-payments.”
The script of parasitism and dependence is made visible through familiar performances of race and gender. Thompson is cast as a hustler, naturally seeking to get around a hard day’s work for his own gratification. Sidibe’s character is cast in a classic “Sapphire” role, represented in countless popular culture narratives as “evil, bitchy, stubborn and hateful,” and frames and performs the producer-versus-parasite distinction in this context. Her character rehearses long-standing racist portrayals of Black women as slothful and belligerent that continue to pervade television and other media forms in the United States. Sidibe’s and Thompson’s characters are immediately legible in the context of these well-worn scripts; as the theorist M. Jaqui Alexander explains, they are “culturally legitimate to despise.”
The two other “finalists” for the “Public Employee of the Year” award are cast as white men—one a janitor, the other an elevator inspector. Both revel in do-nothing government jobs, limitless overtime, and farcical work rules secured by a union contract. Here, the viewers are introduced to the logic of parasitism through a Black woman, a logic that becomes transposed to two white male characters and is recognizable in part through their association with Sidibe’s character. Indeed, the skit would not function the same way if the men were introduced first; their dependence and parasitism could not be naturally assumed by viewers. The process of transposition, we should note, does not erase or trouble the boundaries of their social identities. The race and gendered performances delimit the characters and their social distance from one another in clear ways. The two male characters are hopelessly parasitic, but they have not lost or sacrificed their whiteness in any way. They are parasitic and they are white.
Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a Tea Party–aligned political advocacy group that has spearheaded the assault on public-sector unions through many of its state and local chapters, has also been on the forefront of attempts to portray public workers as anti-producers, indolent and idle. Their efforts reveal the kinds of labor necessary to put white workers in this category. In 2011, AFP California produced a series of online videos called Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous on Government Pensions, featuring AFP spokesperson David Spady clad in a tuxedo and driving to different locales (sometimes in a stretch limousine) to highlight the allegedly excessive compensation and benefits commanded by specific public-sector workers. (The segment spoofs Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, a syndicated show from the 1980s in which the host, Robin Leech, toured the homes and locales of entertainment stars.)
One AFP segment targeted municipal lifeguards in Newport Beach, California, as an example not only of the excessive pay and benefits afforded to public workers at taxpayer expense but also of the self-gratifying and indulgent nature of the workers themselves. AFP California complained that Newport lifeguards were overcompensated through high salaries, excessive pensions, and early retirement plans that impoverished taxpayers. The producerist discourse of recent decades does not easily lend itself to the demonization of white male rescue workers, particularly after the lionization of “first responders” in the wake of September 11. In some cases, the pensions of firefighters and police officers have generated political controversy, but those criticisms never focused on personal qualities or attributes as such. But lifeguards are more vulnerable to the logics of both producerism and austerity, occupying a more liminal category and therefore standing as an appealing target.
In order to make their case compelling, AFP depicts lifeguards as frivolous, vain, and focused on the pleasures of the body, characteristics that are in opposition to the masculinist logic of producerism and are an affront to the demand for austerity. These elements of producerist discourse, part and parcel of the depictions of women and people of color in contrast to virtuous white men, are now meant to mark certain white male subjects off from others who are more immune to attack.
Attempts at new discursive framings do not necessarily succeed. In this case, however, the notion of the lifeguard as a decadent threat to the polity was understandable enough to cross over to popular media presentation. The syndicated television news program Inside Edition embraced AFP’s framing by running an “investigative” segment on the lifeguards, in which Spady appears as a “whistleblower” who exposes the corrupt practices of the municipal lifeguards, highlighting vanity and sexual pleasure seeking alongside overcompensation. In an interview on the Inside Edition segment, Spady complains that “the reason lifeguards have some of the most coveted jobs in Southern California is not just because they get to talk to girls in bikinis and work on their suntans” but because of the “incredibly generous packages” they are afforded. To see if taxpayers are “getting their money’s worth,” Inside Edition producers and a reporter secretly followed several lifeguards over several days, filming them playing beach volleyball and running errands, allegedly on work time. A reporter confronts one lifeguard supervisor in his car in a parking lot (after reportedly following him four hundred miles to the San Francisco Bay Area), asking him, “Do you think you owe an explanation to the taxpayers who pay your salary?” Though later in the segment the reporter discloses a seemingly reasonable explanation given by the city manager for all of the alleged infractions, the underlying contention was clear—preening, hedonistic lifeguards were now fleecing taxpayers too. A cultural narrative rarely deployed against white workers was easily understood in this context; once they are framed as parasites and as threats to the producerist public, neither whiteness nor masculinity could indemnify the lifeguards from these charges.
The AFP story garnered significant press coverage in Orange County, and in early 2014 the City of Newport announced it was seeking bids from private contractors to outsource some lifeguarding services, citing the need to control pension and salary costs. While municipal pensions have been an ongoing source of debate in many California cities, it is the way in which the cultural logic of parasitism and self-indulgence becomes visible in public debate here that requires our attention.
We have argued that in order to understand why public-employee unions quickly became an object of bipartisan opprobrium during the Great Recession, we must attend to the cultural logics and representational strategies that opponents of such unions sought to popularize. Opponents of public-sector unions transposed narratives long used to stigmatize people of color and to discredit state redistributory efforts to improve their conditions onto a largely white workforce, portraying government workers as decadent and slothful threats to the productive, taxpaying citizenry, legitimating and naturalizing a series of anti-union policy initiatives in several states.
Like all articulatory projects, however, the claims they made and the identities and interests they sought to naturalize are always contingent and incomplete. More particularly, public-sector unions and their supporters have played an active role in challenging representations of public-sector workers as parasitic. But rather than challenge the cultural logic of parasitism, they largely claimed the producerist position for themselves in order to discredit these attacks.
This strategy can be witnessed most visibly in the successful 2011 campaign on the part of public-sector workers in Ohio to reverse the passage of Senate Bill (SB) 5, a law backed by Republican governor John Kasich that dramatically curtailed the rights and power of the state’s 360,000 public workers. SB 5 banned strikes by all public-sector workers, restricted collective bargaining to a handful of issues, eliminated binding arbitration, banned unions from collecting “fair share” fees to cover the costs of representing employees included in the collective bargaining agreement who elected not to pay membership dues, restricted other pay and benefits, and increased the minimum employee contributions toward health-care benefits. Unlike the Wisconsin legislation, the bill also restricted the rights and authority of police and firefighters. After Kasich signed the legislation into law on March 30, 2011, a coalition of public-sector unions and their supporters organized under the entity “We Are Ohio” (the campaign name itself signifying its populist and producerist commitments) and qualified a statewide referendum on the measure for the fall 2011 ballot, which became known as Issue 2.
In the public debate over the measure, supporters of SB 5 mobilized familiar arguments about union members as parasites. As one television ad in favor of the anti-union measure had it, “Enough is enough.” Public-sector workers opposed the legislation, the ad claimed, “because they want even more from us. Better pay and benefits than us. Better job security than us. Better retirement than us. All paid for by us.” Republican state legislator Jim Buchy explained that SB 5 was needed because “We want to create more taxpayers and fewer tax users.” In an interview with Toledo news station WUPW in late September, Kasich argued that Ohio voters were tired of “paying twice” for their own benefits and those of public-sector workers, suggesting the example of a “single mother with a couple of kids, it’s hard for her to get her health care, she probably has no pension or maybe a 401(k), and we’re asking her—it’s very tough to support her own family—also to support somebody else’s [family].”
The campaign to defeat SB 5 raised more than $40 million, more than three times as much as its opposition, and the money permitted the We Are Ohio coalition to invest heavily in television campaign advertisements. The framing of these ads is instructive, for it reveals the racial logic and representational strategies deployed by the unions to counter the claims of parasitism they faced. The large majority of these ads featured firefighters, police officers, and nurses amid life-threatening emergencies, invoking an iconography of white heroism and sacrifice, and within recognizably gendered occupations.
We Are Ohio’s credibility with voters depended on the celebrated cultural status of firefighters, police, and nurses as “first responders” rather than as public-service workers defending the public good. For example, one mailer used in the direct-mail campaign to voters featured an image of two mask-clad firefighters entering a building enveloped in fire and smoke. The accompanying text read, “Fire. Crimes. Rescue. They keep our communities safe.” Inside, the text read, “TAKE IT FROM THOSE ON THE FRONT LINES: Issue 2 makes it harder for our fire, police, and emergency forces to protect us and our families.” Unions argued that by restricting collective bargaining to wages and benefits alone, firefighters, nurses, and similar workers would not be able to bargain for adequate staffing levels necessary to respond to emergencies.
The statewide television advertising campaign similarly featured a series of rescue workers responding to emergencies. A widely run ad titled “Zoey” showed a photo of firefighters rescuing a young girl (Zoey) from the upper levels of a burning building, while her great-grandmother explained in a voiceover that “if not for the firefighters, we wouldn’t have our Zoey today. . . . That’s why it is so important to vote no on Issue 2.” Another ad, titled “Emergency,” showed firefighters rushing out of the station and fighting a house fire, with a fireman explaining, “Issue 2 makes it harder for us to do our jobs, and that’s not safe for us, or the neighborhoods we serve.” The ad was rolled out during press conferences at several firehouses around the state, with a largely white and all-male group of firefighters gathered behind the podium. Other ads, titled “Everyday Heroes,” “Nurse,” and “Sacrifice,” included similar images of heroic public-safety workers, nurses, and (in one instance) teachers.
We Are Ohio also launched a significant field-organizing campaign that involved many thousands of public-sector union members and their supporters contacting voters at their homes and by phone. On Election Day, Issue 2 lost in a landslide; more than 61 percent of voters rejected the anti-union measure. SB 5 was never implemented, handing Governor Kasich a significant defeat.
To be sure, the campaign strategy pursued by We Are Ohio to defeat Issue 2 was highly persuasive with voters. The decision to feature rescue workers and raise the specter of threats to public safety seemingly resonated with undecided voters, who may not have otherwise been supportive of unions or collective bargaining rights. By all accounts, the campaign was well executed and represented a critical victory for organized labor and their allies in the wake of Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union attacks in Wisconsin earlier in the year.
For the purpose of our analysis, what is instructive about these ads and the broader campaign strategy is the terrain on which unions had to make their claims to the public. In the face of charges of parasitism, they had to quite literally perform their white producerist commitments for the electorate, in effect to counter the process of racial transposition. In order to refute accusations that they were burdens to the taxpayer and dependent on other workers, they had to appear as the negation of the parasite, the indispensable and heroic protectors of public safety, affirmed by their whiteness within traditional gender roles. That is, they had to reproduce the long-standing producer/parasite divide (positioning themselves firmly on the side of the former) to legitimate their standing before the electorate.
This strategy was likely necessary to win the election that November, but in the long term it forces public-sector workers in general to operate in an extremely constricted political framework. Many public-employee unions have long been ambivalent about championing the public sector and government more broadly as a means to secure widespread social mobility and justice, choosing more often to serve primarily as bargaining agents to secure better wages and working conditions for their members. In this sense, the emphasis on valorizing white heroism rather than making claims for the public good is not surprising.
But there are tens of thousands of public-sector workers—clerks, accountants, social workers, data analysts, custodians, and many others—who can never be represented in such heroic terms. How do they make their claim to collective bargaining rights, fair wage standards, and health and retirement benefits? If future attacks on public-sector unions are more selective and exempt public-safety workers, on what grounds can other public-sector employees defend themselves? The producer/hero framework may legitimate the claim that only subjects who can perform and document their productive contributions are worthy of public remuneration and benefits, narrowing the terrain on which others can make claims to the public wage. By defending public workers on such terms, it naturalizes and reproduces the producer/parasite distinction.
These conditions also have implications beyond the public sector. As we argued earlier, “producerism” does not correspond to any particular position or role in the economy; it is a socially determined identity. For example, workers in electronics assembly, meat processing, or garment factories, where large numbers of women, immigrants, and people of color are concentrated, are centrally involved in the manufacture of goods. Yet they rarely stand in for the producerist ethic, and the logic of producerism has not been mobilized to protect their vulnerability. When politicians want to demonstrate their commitments to producerism and “American jobs,” they are much more likely to visit a heavy-manufacturing plant in the Midwest than a sweatshop in downtown Los Angeles. Thus, the most culturally legible forms of producerism are always constrained by racial and gender conventions. And even for those white workers who do imagine that producerist logics will safeguard their employment and wages from attacks, the example of public-sector workers is instructive. Within a cultural discourse and policy framework that fetishizes and naturalizes market forces, anyone perceived to have job security, wages, benefits, or even the most basic forms of autonomy and authority at work can stand accused of violating the ethical norms of producerism. And as the sectors of the economy long associated with producerism continue to shrink, the protections of claims to a producerist identity will also wither.
Moreover, invocations of producerism will always deny and occlude the ongoing dependence and parasitism of a settler-colonial nation itself. Any invocation of an innocent and virtuous producer in this context necessarily obscures these relations of theft and the production of social death that have constituted the nation’s development and mode of governance since the arrival of European settlers. In this context, there are no self-sufficient subjects. Producerism is also the last refuge of scoundrels. As the Ohio example demonstrates, labor-union producerism will almost always be articulated through the dominant conventions of race, gender, and nation. The “Buy American” campaigns pushed by organized labor in the 1970s and 1980s were rife with racist suppositions about the inscrutability of “foreign” labor seeking to depose the virtuous American worker. Such laborist appeals to producerism not only amplified nativist sentiments (and anti-immigrant violence) but also failed to prevent corporations from driving down wages globally by shifting production to sites with lower labor costs.
Beyond the Producer/Parasite Divide
In the wake of the defeat of Issue 2 and the considerable political backlash against Scott Walker, many of the attacks on public-sector unions moved to the legal arena. The U.S. Supreme Court heard several cases to determine whether workers included in collective bargaining agreements can be compelled to pay fees to cover the cost of their representation. By 2012, the contention that unionized public-sector workers were one of the primary culprits of the Great Recession seemed to have less resonance. In November 2012, voters decisively rejected a measure to weaken the political power of unions in California. “Right-to-work” initiatives failed to qualify for the ballot in Ohio and Oregon the same year.
While organized conservative interests continue to press their case against public-sector workers, and many states and municipalities continue to debate pension funding in particular, cultural representations of public-sector workers as parasitic lessened, but they did not altogether disappear. In early 2018, public school teachers in Oklahoma joined colleagues in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona in statewide walkouts to demand both pay increases for themselves and more funding for K–12 education. Teachers in Oklahoma had not received a pay raise in a decade, and the state ranked last in teacher salaries. Many school systems, even in white middle-class communities, were chronically underfunded.
The walkout raised the ire of some fiscal conservatives, especially as teachers continued to press their case even after the legislature granted an increase to the K–12 budget that would provide for modest raises. Oklahoma state senator Joseph Silk turned to a familiar script to frame the walkouts as threats to the producerist body. Silk commented on Facebook that he was “exceptionally frustrated with many of our public educators, who radically and vocally turned against all common sense, principled measures, measures which could have increased funding to their industry and instead threw all their support behind a huge money grab tax increase on the backs of hard working Oklahomans.” Two weeks later, when Kentucky governor Matt Bevin was met by five thousand teachers descending on the state capitol to protest funding cuts and stagnant salaries, he attacked them for “hangin’ out, shoes off. Smokin’, leavin’ trash around, takin’ the day off.” For Bevin, the teachers were unmistakably parasites, unworthy of public sympathy and support.
These changing but enduring representations demonstrate the contingency and fluidity of the process by which certain political subjects are marked as either productive or parasitic. While populist charges of parasitism have historically been made on groups marked racially as non-white, white workers can also be subject to the logic of this framework through a process of racial transposition. Though the fiscal crises engendered by the Great Recession undoubtedly made the attacks on public-sector workers more resonant, economic conditions alone do not explain their sudden emergence. Instead, the discourse of parasitism, so historically significant in U.S. political culture, allowed these attacks to be read as reasonable, prudent responses to a population thriving off the labor of others.
Yet this paradigm is not inevitable. Some recent public-sector organizing efforts have effectively made their demands and claims legible without reproducing the claims of producerism. The 2012 citywide strike led by the Chicago Teachers Union effectively aligned the needs of teachers, parents, students, and working-class neighborhoods without asserting the uncompromised virtue or needs of one group against another. (By contrast, the charter school and education privatization movements explicitly pit needy parents and students against allegedly greedy teachers and their unions.) The strike won important benefits for teachers and protections and resources for neighborhood schools. In West Virginia six years later, teachers, bus drivers, and other school employees struck in all fifty-five counties statewide; thirty-four thousand teachers, with the support of hundreds of thousands of parents, closed every school in the state. The strike forced the legislature to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the school budget without making cuts to other public services. As with similar education strikes in Kentucky, Arizona, and Oklahoma, the demands in West Virginia were premised on meeting broad-based public needs and confronting the logic of austerity rather than celebrating the producerist qualities of any single group.
Teacher-led organizing in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona has been dubbed by some commentators as the “red-state revolt.” These actions certainly confound simplistic accounts of place-based political cultures (blue versus red) offered by observers like Thomas Edsall and Amy Chua, who suggest that competing political “tribes” marked by clashing ideological commitments structure the contours of political antagonisms in the United States. Yet as we will see in the next chapter, the discourse of racialized producerism continues to perform important ideological labor in the New Gilded Age. Critical race scholars have long asserted that “race” is a social and political construct. Taking that claim seriously means not simply marking the ways racial discourse travels along well-trodden paths of ascription. Insofar as race is the product of power, we should attend to ways race can be mobilized to surprising ends, pressed into service to shore up or extend hierarchy and domination. Thus we should expect the discourse of parasitism to continue to incorporate new subjects, interests, and political projects in the future, particularly in the absence of more fundamental challenges to its logic. As long as this framework remains resonant, all workers are vulnerable to its imperatives.