The Changing Labor of Race in the New Gilded Age
We met Joey Gibson in 2018 on a warm April afternoon on the fourth-floor terrace of a public library overlooking Vancouver, Washington—a bedroom community just over the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. We came to interview Gibson, an activist who had recently launched a campaign for a U.S. Senate seat, about what had inspired his “anti-establishment” crusade. Gibson told us that Jesus, as “a revolutionary rebel,” was his first inspiration, “and then, obviously, Martin Luther King, with him preaching love and peace and nonviolent resistance. A lot of stuff that he did is stuff that I have been trying to do.” He went on to describe the impact of watching the Black student sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960: “I’ve seen the videos of them going into the diner millions of times and taking that beating, and it’s amazing because you see them get knocked to the ground, you think they’re done, and they just sit down again and they just take it.” As we conversed about contemporary political problems, Gibson referred to mass incarceration as “legal slavery,” saying that “mandatory minimum sentencing is horrible. It’s devastating. It’s been completely disruptive to the Black community. Do we really need to put all these people in a jail cell and take away their freedoms because they have an addiction? It’s crazy to me.”
There would be nothing surprising in hearing a progressive political activist cite Martin Luther King Jr. or the lunch counter sit-ins as inspirations, or connecting mass incarceration to slavery. The civil rights movement continues to stand as the most iconic social movement in the United States, and mass imprisonment has been in the foreground of social justice activism in the past decade.
But Joey Gibson is neither a progressive nor a social justice activist. On the contrary, he dwells politically on the furthest shores of the American right. The organization he founded, Patriot Prayer, became synonymous with violent demonstrations after Trump’s election in 2016 and made Gibson one of the most notorious far-right figures in the nation. Gibson organized regular “free speech” and “pro-Trump” rallies throughout 2017 that drew members of white-supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan and Identity Evropa, and featured racist speakers and renowned streetfighters. These rallies, where attendees regularly adorned themselves in body armor and homemade weapons and where extra security was often provided by groups such as the protofascist Proud Boys and the heavily armed Three Percenters militia, often resulted in bloody assaults on antiracists and antifascists who showed up to oppose them. Patriot Prayer attracted, among others, Jeremy Christian, the white supremacist who stabbed two people to death and severely injured a third who sought to stop him from harassing two Muslim women on a Portland light rail train in May 2017. Christian had attended one of Gibson’s rallies two weeks prior to the murder, wearing an American Revolutionary War flag as a cape and giving Nazi salutes to counter-protestors. As the city reeled from Christian’s grisly killings, Gibson went ahead with plans for another rally just days after. In the summer of 2018, Gibson continued to organize a series of mass rallies in Portland and Seattle seeking to galvanize a vigilante movement of the far right, a street Trumpism bound together by a violent antipathy toward the left.
How do we square the Joey Gibson whose campaign web page features an image of civil rights marchers in Selma kneeling in prayer with the Joey Gibson who helped spawn a political milieu populated by violent Islamophobes, white nationalists, and fascist street brawlers? What kind of political labor is performed by an invocation of the Black freedom struggle by a figure on the far right? And how do we account for the continued presence of a small but consistent number of men of color, including Gibson, in the central leadership of these groups, some of whom even pose for photos making “white power” gestures?
Stories like Gibson’s and the questions they raise are what prompted us to write this book. They speak to the aporias of this moment in U.S. politics and to the new deployments of racial meaning by the right in a moment of growing economic precarity. Across the landscape we see many surprising scenarios: white public-sector workers depicted as “the new welfare queens”; impoverished whites in the “opioid belt” described as culturally and genetically inferior populations; Black and brown Tea Partiers hailed as the new leaders of an overwhelmingly white conservative movement; and far-right figures like Gibson imagining themselves to be inheritors of the civil rights movement, paradoxically conjoining non-whiteness with invocations of white supremacy.
Do these disorienting examples lend credence to the idea that we have now entered a postracial society? Quite the opposite. In a polity founded on African slavery, imperial expansion, and Native dispossession, the idea of “race” has shaped every aspect of political development in U.S. history structurally, institutionally, and culturally.
Indeed, the stories we tell in Producers, Parasites, Patriots underscore the fundamental role that race continues to play in reproducing and naturalizing the growing social, political, and economic inequalities marking the current moment. Though our title foregrounds the right-wing politics of precarity, this book is not limited to self-described actors on the right (though they are a significant part of the story). We also use right-wing to denote the broad ways that vulnerability, suffering, and premature death become socially legible. The racialized categories of the “producer,” the “parasite,” and the “patriot” have long been deployed to do this work, differentiating those groups deemed self-reliant, autonomous, and worthy of social protection from those who are dependent, debased, and worthy of abandonment and disavowal. As we argue below, changing material and political conditions have produced subtle but significant shifts in the ways these categories are put to use and inhabited.
Race and Class in the New Gilded Age
These dynamics remind us, however, that we are in the midst of a new and distinct conjuncture in the United States composed of at least two major phenomena. The first is the rise of what some scholars have deemed a “New Gilded Age,” which marks the great acceleration of material inequality and the movement of the U.S. state toward autocracy. Political and economic power is concentrated at the very top in historically novel ways after a half century of decline in public provision and wealth redistribution. Decades of stagnant or declining wages, privatization, and deregulation coupled with profound levels of personal debt have had devastating effects on low- and middle-income households; the post-2009 recovery still left forty million households living below the poverty line at the end of the Obama presidency. In 2016, the Federal Reserve reported that the top 10 percent of the population owned 77 percent of the wealth, with the rest distributed among the bottom 90 percent. In this context, elite influence over electoral politics, public policy, education, media, and cultural institutions has intensified.
The second element we examine is the transformation of the meanings and labor of race in the post–civil rights era. Malcolm X famously noted that “racism is like a Cadillac, they bring out a new model every year.” While racial subordination is an enduring feature of U.S. political history, it continually changes in response to shifting social and political conditions, interests, and structures. In this moment, racial disparities along many indices are at historically high levels even as racial inequality is everywhere denounced. At the same time, elite powers and interests from across the political spectrum have become invested in a symbolic form of multiculturalism and racial pluralism that was unimaginable a half century ago. The Heritage Foundation, long the ideological compass of the conservative movement, is today presided over by a Black woman. A book recently published by the libertarian Cato Institute celebrates the abolitionist Frederick Douglass as a “self-made man,” an idealized neoliberal subject who was never in support of “the interests of the collective.” These new modes of incorporation have done nothing to redistribute resources and power more equitably, but they have permitted elites to deploy narratives of racial uplift and difference in ways that legitimate their own authority.
As the cultural theorists Stuart Hall and Doreen Massey note, the shaping of popular consciousness and consent often compels those in power “to detach concepts from their previous associations and shift them to new meanings.” The civil rights era made some expressions of white supremacy contestable in public life. It also offered new framings of antiracism and racial uplift as exemplars of national exceptionalism and virtue that could be claimed by a broad array of movements, actors, and ideologies. And as the United States becomes more racially diverse, political elites in general and conservatives in particular require new ways of incorporating non-white symbols, narratives, and people. Political and economic elites need novel forms of moral legitimation to justify the withdrawal of their commitments to the growing number of households newly vulnerable to an economy rooted in plunder and financial predation. This legitimation has increasingly come in the form of incorporating the discourse and settled meanings from the civil rights movement wherein redemptive deployments of racial difference in general and Blackness in particular become crucial strategies of governance.
The consequences of the post–civil rights era and the post–New Deal era are entwined in this period in ways that both reinforce old racial hierarchies and open the door for new kinds of racial signification. Race performs dynamic and often contradictory work, continuing to produce hierarchy and exclusion while also generating new forms of mobility and incorporation. Like all forms of popular common sense, racism is a composite formation, bearing vestiges of bygone dynamics as well as traces of emerging developments.
The contradictions in this moment confront us everywhere. In the United States today there is an intensification of racialized aggression against people of color not seen since the massive resistance to the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. These open racial threats have come up from the streets and down from the state. Black and brown communities face continual state predation, abandonment, and violence—and now, newly energized white-supremacist attacks. Overt and unapologetic expressions of white supremacy are on the rise, as are crimes of racial violence and terror, particularly against women and LGBT people of color. In August 2017 the United Nations issued an “early warning” on the state of racial discrimination in the United States, an admonition that in the last decade has only been issued to conflict in states such as Burundi, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Kyrgyzstan, and Nigeria.
This intensified racialized domination occurs at a moment when the United States is undergoing the most massive upward transfer of wealth it has experienced since the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century. The institutions that for much of the twentieth century served to guard against the upward redistribution of wealth—labor unions, progressive income and wealth taxation policies, social welfare programs, consumer protections, and civil rights and anti-discrimination laws—have faced sustained attacks and have become dramatically weakened.
The starkness of these conditions should provide an extraordinary opportunity for those committed to a vision of economic redistribution and antiracism. And yet in our politics and in our thinking, it seems we inevitably collapse back into a class/race divide when attempting to understand and engage the politics of precarity with which we are faced. While there is important nuance and distinction in the extant scholarship, two important theoretical formations are worth exploring in brief. The prevailing framework used to interpret inequalities in resources and power for many political historians and social scientists who study race has been predicated on an understanding of dueling racial orders, traditions, or visions of nationhood competing for authority. In this view, there is an objective racial antagonism—often metonymically represented as W. E. B. Du Bois’s “problem of the color line”—that has fundamentally shaped politics and society since the era of modern slavery and colonization.
These accounts vary in their particular renderings and detail, but this framework often maps a conflict between an egalitarian, liberal, and inclusive antiracist political bloc on the one hand and a hierarchical and conservative racist bloc on the other. Contemporary accounts of racial disparities—in wealth, income, incarceration rates, health outcomes, and education—further index this opposition. The “New Jim Crow” of the prison system or the racialized “achievement gap” in education, for example, can ultimately be traced back to the antagonism of the color line. This analysis is rooted in claims about the micropolitics of racial antagonism (including recent attention to unconscious bias and micro-aggression) as well as systemic analyses of institutional and structural racism. Such analyses include much of the mainstream scholarship in ethnic studies, the race subfields of the social sciences, and many activist formations.
By contrast, an alternative analysis interprets political and economic inequality as an effect of divergent and antagonistic class interests. From this perspective, the overrepresentation of African Americans and Latino/as among the nation’s working poor and economically destitute is primarily a manifestation not of the antagonism of the color line but rather of the imperatives of capital in an era of financialization, continued deindustrialization, and widening inequality. While this analysis has long held currency in materialist studies of slavery and U.S. industrialization, it has received renewed attention in several works by an influential group of scholars grounded in African American history and politics who point to the ways race now operates primarily to mask or mystify class antagonisms. Barbara Fields and Karen Fields have referred to this process as “racecraft”—a “mental terrain” and “persuasive belief” that functions as a folk ideology and more closely parallels the epistemology of seventeenth-century witchcraft than any contemporary social-scientific inquiry. The political scientist Adolph Reed similarly argues that contemporary antiracist formations, largely emptied of their oppositional politics, are as likely to abet the upward redistribution of wealth as to resist it. The historian Jacqueline Jones positions race itself as a national “creation myth” that legitimates contemporary forms of economic inequality: “Today, certain groups of people are impoverished, exploited in the workplace, or incarcerated in large numbers. This is not the case because of their ‘race,’ however, but rather because at a particular point in US history certain other groups began to invoke the myth of race in a bid for economic and political power.” From this perspective, it is economic inequality and the exploitation of labor demanded under market economies that produces the race concept as ideologically salient and socially useful. In short, racial inequality can be defined as a by-product of capitalist accumulation.
Coproductions of Race and Class
In a generative 1980 essay titled “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance,” Stuart Hall calls for “an analysis of the specific forms which racism assumes in its ideological functioning” in relation to “the dominant class relations.” He argues for an attention to the specific ways in which racism “secures a whole social formation under a dominant class” within particular historic conditions. Like Reed, Fields and Fields, and Jones, Hall insists that an analysis of race can never be abstracted from the antagonisms produced by class conflict and exploitation. But for Hall, race plays a critical and historically specific ideological role in this process, often becoming the “modality in which class is ‘lived,’ the form in which it is appropriated and ‘fought through.’” Hall notes the particular ideological labor that race often performs within a society “structured in dominance.” He explains that “racism discovers what other ideologies have to construct: an apparently ‘natural’ and universal basis in nature itself. . . . [I]t articulates securely with an us/them structure of corporate class consciousness. . . . [R]acisms also dehistoricize—translating historically-specific structures into the timeless language of nature.” It is not merely that racialized domination is historically produced and continually reinforced by capitalism. Capitalism has historically depended on racialization to produce class rule and stymie the promise of democracy. Race plays a critical role in constituting the political subjects of a capitalist economy, making legible the range of political roles—tied to capacities for autonomy, self-regulation, and ownership on the one hand and dependence, indolence, and subservience on the other—necessary to reproduce capitalism itself. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains, “capitalism requires inequality and racism enshrines it.”
Hall’s insights lay much of the groundwork for contemporary scholars attempting to theorize the particular political work of race in the context of widening economic inequalities and militarized and carceral state control. The practices of neoliberalism—valorizing the market, reorganizing the state, ending downward redistribution, removing protections—have entailed specific constructs of autonomy, dependency, and worth. As Lisa Duggan asserts, “neoliberalism has assembled its projects and interests from the field of issues saturated with race, with gender, with sex, with religion, with ethnicity, and nationality.” Jodi Melamed has argued that neoliberal policy itself “engenders new racial subjects, as it creates and distinguishes between newly privileged and stigmatized collectivities, yet multiculturalism codes the wealth, mobility, and political power of neoliberalism’s beneficiaries to be the just desserts of ‘multicultural world citizens,’ while representing those that neoliberalism dispossesses to be handicapped by their own ‘monoculturalism’ or other historico-cultural deficiencies.” Neoliberal multiculturalism performs historically specific work by “breaking with an older racism’s reliance on phenotype to innovate new ways of fixing human capacities to naturalize inequality. The new racism deploys economic, ideological, cultural, and religious distinctions to produce lesser personhoods, laying these new categories of privilege and stigma across conventional racial categories, fracturing them into differential status groups.”
An important body of scholarship and political activism in the twentieth century popularized the contention that racial groupings, boundaries, and meanings are socially constructed rather than expressive of group-based biological or genetic difference. Race is a social construction, to be sure. But we argue that it is more particularly a political construction, generated by historically specific structures of power. Any society “structured in dominance” requires a shared basis of comprehending and reproducing distinctions of merit and stigma, autonomy and dependency, and authority and dispossession. Within the United States, conceptualizations of race have always provided a legitimating vocabulary and grammar. The value afforded to various categories of labor (honorable or degraded), the status of capital (heroic or parasitic), and the relationship forged between state and market all depend upon such distinctions. Claims about dependency, autonomy, and freedom have always been constructed through racialized and gendered meaning and references. Thus, as we demonstrate, even when these claims are used to stigmatize groups of largely white workers, race still performs important political labor, as the hierarchical taxonomies of capitalism continue to be constituted through racialized distinctions and meanings. Producers, Parasites, Patriots builds on the scholarship and analysis of Hall, Melamed, Gilmore, and others as an analysis of the mutually generative relationship between race and class, one that highlights the surprising ways that each is mobilized by the right under current circumstances.
The Constraints of Civil Rights
This moment demands new analytic frames for understanding the relationship between race, class, and state institutions. Since the end of World War II, both the main scholarly works on race within the United States and the major political projects committed to civil rights and racial justice have been premised on a set of assumptions about the capacities of the U.S. state and economy and the possibilities of inclusion within both: an expanding economy that can produce enough surplus to ensure the continued stability of key institutional formations (including education, criminal justice, health care, environmental management, the military, and representative government) in a way that could incorporate new racialized subjects.
In this context, antiracist political strategies, scholarship, and analyses have generally been centered on eradicating racial bias and exclusion through the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws in order to win access to institutions and resources for racially subordinated groups. In a period when the overall U.S. economy continued to grow, promising higher wages and standards of living to each new generation, and as U.S. institutions were regarded as guarantors of a well-functioning civil society, those assumptions seemed fully warranted. Thus, struggles over affirmative action, housing desegregation, employment discrimination, voting rights, and access to resources and services were all premised on both the effectiveness of the relevant institutions and access to a surplus, especially in the form of public budgets, capable of financing these efforts.
It is increasingly evident, however, that these conditions can no longer be presumed. For example, when the University of California’s affirmative action programs were first challenged in the late 1970s by a white medical-school applicant named Allan Bakke, the institution itself was well financed and prosperous—providing an affordable and accessible education to students and secure employment to tens of thousands of people. While the struggle over affirmative action continues today in that state, the institution itself has experienced dramatic change, characterized by steep increases in tuition and student debt, the rise of the contingent academic workforce, and continual disinvestment by the state.
The accelerating wealth and income gap, along with four decades of privatization, deregulation, and regressive tax policy, has essentially removed a large proportion of economic surplus from the authority of the state and thus from the demands of racially subordinated groups. The institutions and sectors that have historically been the subject of racial-justice activism—schools, representative government, public- and private-sector employment—are themselves in deep crisis. And in an age of permanent war, global migration and displacement, and ecological crisis, the question posed by James Baldwin more than fifty years ago, “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” takes on new urgency and meaning. A racial-justice analysis focused on institutional inclusion and incorporation can no longer ignore these conditions. At the same time, many white people who have long been invested in the protections afforded to them by the “color line” are facing new conditions of precarity, deprivations that have long been familiar to subordinated groups in the United States.
Autonomy versus dependency, producer versus parasite, virtue versus vice, individual versus collective, and fitness versus weakness are among the main binaries that have generated racial categories in the United States and shored up its hierarchies in a capitalist society. In our analysis we foreground the use of these binaries as they have been mutually constituted through the formation of Blackness and whiteness in the post–New Deal era, along with the concomitant (and contradictory) emergence of the broadly accepted moral authority of the mainstream civil rights movement.
We use the term racial transposition across this book to name the varied ways in which representations of racial meaning travel and circulate. It describes a process through which the meaning, valence, and signification of race can be transferred from one context, group, or setting to another, shaping the ways in which racial categories structure broad fields of social meaning. The concept extends historian Natalia Molina’s notion of “racial scripts”—the complex of racialized significations ascribed to one group which, Molina explains, “can easily be transferred to new groups.” Molina cautions that “these scripts are not automatically uprooted from one situation to the next or simply transferred from one group to another. We must always take into consideration the conditions under which racial scripts emerge—the social structure, the material conditions, and the historical context—and bear in mind that there is not a uniform experience of racialization, which varies by national origins, immigrant status, skin color, language acquisition, and perception of foreignness, for example.” Race, in other words, is not open to any sort of signification for any given body or group. Race is determined, ultimately, by the history from which it emerges and the play of political forces to which it is subject.
Transpositions of race are not a new phenomenon, and the grammar and structure of the process have been well documented by other scholars. The broad history of colonialism, slavery, and settlement has been structured through efforts to differentiate people from one another into distinct and socially legible racial categories, but those distinctions are always shifting. In Black Marxism, Cedric Robinson demonstrates that the “emergence of racial order in feudal Europe” shaped (or in our terms, was transposed upon) the system of racial capitalism that expanded beyond Europe. As Robinson explains: “The tendency of European civilization through capitalism was thus not to homogenize but to differentiate—to exaggerate regional, subcultural, and dialectical differences into ‘racial’ ones. As the Slavs became the natural slaves, the racially inferior stock for domination and exploitation during the early Middle Ages, as the Tartars came to occupy a similar position in the Italian cities of the late Middle Ages, so at the systemic interlocking of capitalism in the sixteenth century, the peoples of the Third World began to fill this expanding category of a civilization reproduced by capitalism.” What’s important to note here is Robinson’s emphasis that the “category” of inferiority that is necessitated by capitalism has existed prior to Europe’s encounter with “the peoples of the Third World.” By attending to the continuities in the classificatory and taxonomic categories of capitalism, we can understand how the social and political meanings signified by “race” can travel across place and time.
Similarly, Molina explains that many of the formative debates within immigration law and public policy in the early twentieth century involved processes in which the characteristics associated with one racialized group were brought to bear on another as a way of establishing their social standing and value. For example, the social meaning and standing of “Mexican” as a racial category was established over time through constructions of Blackness, whiteness, and indigeneity.
More recently, Donald Trump’s statement at a White House event on immigration in May 2018 that some people entering the United States were “not people” but “animals” circulated within a field of racist discourse that has sought to represent Blackness as outside the sphere of humanity. Indeed, the intensification of immigrant detention, deportation, and incarceration that has targeted migrants from the Global South more generally has drawn from narratives of degeneracy and incorrigibility that had long justified Black subordination. While our analysis of racial transposition often centers on Blackness, the field of contemporary racial politics and racial formation has also shaped and been shaped by other racialized phenomena. These include the rise of non-European immigration to the United States since 1965 and the parallel growth in nativist political projects, as well as the post-9/11 intensification of Islamophobia.
As we emphasize throughout the book, racial transposition does not render or situate groups within equivalent social positions. The transposition of particular characteristics from one group to another does not transform group-based structures of racial power and domination. To argue that some white workers have become newly stigmatized through the deployment of narratives and representations once reserved for people of color in general and Black people in particular is not to argue that their social and political standing is equivalent or somehow converging. Whiteness still affords a host of political protections and indemnifications, but they are not absolute.
Our examination of the shifting terrain of white precarity necessarily entails an interrogation of the specific histories of anti-Black racial projects. As the political scientist Tiffany Willoughby-Herard explains, “the construction of the abject black other and the construction of white poverty are inextricably bound together but not the same.” Whiteness no longer ensures indemnification from charges of civic failure and social abandonment, but those narratives are only legible because they have been long deployed to construct “the abject black other.”
There are two interrelated articulations of Blackness within the field of politics, governance, and state formation examined in this book, what we might call the signifying political labor of Blackness. In the dominant mode, Blackness functions as the negation of the polity—that which is outside the realm of state protection and recognized civic life. Black abjection in this modality provides the boundary condition through which civic life is constituted, and it continues to be foundational to the reproduction of state authority and power. We can witness its effects across multiple spheres—mass incarceration, labor exploitation, policing, the denial of reproductive autonomy, education, social welfare, housing segregation, and employment. While its language and terms have evolved, this expulsion of Blackness from the polity is indispensable not only to the regulation and control of Black communities but also to the deference and consent of non-Black communities.
But we also explore a related process, one that is productive of a redemptive subjectivity, in which Blackness becomes represented as the ethical embodiment of a distinctly American national identity and exceptionalism. Here, the histories of Black abjection and subordination paradoxically authorize the selective valorization of some Black figures. These figures are summoned and valorized to testify to the enduring qualities and virtues of the nation, the exemplars of individualistic striving and persistence in the face of hostility and institutional failure. Thus, long-standing narratives of Black uplift and the moral perseverance of the civil rights movement are repurposed to defend and naturalize markets and militarized national authority, redefining neoliberalism as a form of antiracist freedom, even as the large majority of Black people face worsening dispossession, violence, and abandonment.
Barack Obama’s political rise exemplified these dual modalities, as he was represented as both a fantasized racial threat to American national identity (either as a socialist or foreign-born usurper) and as the clearest evidence of national redemption and exceptionalism. The steady uptick in the number of high-profile Black figures within contemporary conservative political formations described in chapter 3 has been a key site in reproducing and legitimating neoliberal conservative policies along the lines of the latter.
In the chapters that follow, we consider the contradictory uses of race by political actors and organizations on the right in relation to contemporary political and economic conditions. Through careful analyses of diverse political sites and conflicts—attacks on public-sector unions, the ascent of elites of color, and new framings to explain white precarity—we highlight new deployments of race on the right in the ascendant age of inequality. Ultimately, we argue against the tendency in dominant scholarly debates to pit race against class in evaluating the central determinants of inequality. The reorganization of the global economy and the upward redistribution of wealth, resources, and power are modulated through racial meaning and categories. Race continues to structure the terms of political identity, mobilization, and responses to economic vulnerability, though in ways quite distinct from the dominant patterns of the post–World War II era.
Our first chapter examines cultural representations of race deployed in attacks against public employees during the Great Recession. Beginning in 2009, a chorus of critics on the right charged that unionized public employees were becoming “parasites of government” who consumed tax dollars and productive labor to subsidize a profligate lifestyle. By analyzing a series of discursive representations—political cartoons, television comedy skits, political advertisements and speeches—we demonstrate the ways in which constructions of parasitism have become transposed onto white public-sector workers, including teachers, lifeguards, and firefighters, who have traditionally been exempt from such charges. These attacks reflect the most recent development of an anti-statist politics that had historically assailed the redistributive state through its association with racialized dependents.
In chapter 2 we explore the contradictory ways in which white political identity becomes inhabited and politically invoked in the context of long-term abandonment. Middle- and working-class whites, like other demographic groups in the United States, have been subject to static or declining wages over the last forty years, are working longer hours for less and less, and have seen state support in the form social services evaporate. Conservatives, who came to power from the late 1960s onward through the support of significant sectors of the white working class, have now largely abandoned them. One response has been exuberant support for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential bid. Meanwhile, conservative scholars and pundits have begun to describe the white poor in language once reserved for people of color—depicting them as socially disorganized, culturally deficient, and even genetically compromised.
The rise of a new cohort of Black politicians in visible positions within the Republican Party and other conservative formations is the focus of chapter 3, where we contend that this phenomenon is neither simply a tactical measure nor symbolic window dressing. Instead, we see in it more profound changes within both the dominant modes of neoliberal governance and important shifts in oppositional social movements. At stake here is the long-standing articulation of Blackness as an ethical subjectivity and mode of political critique, one that can either destabilize or naturalize particular configurations of power. On the one hand, the contemporary GOP is among the most right-wing and racially homogeneous major electoral parties in the nation’s history. Racist appeals and alignments continue to structure the GOP’s policy agenda and modes of address, as continued debates over immigration, police violence, Islamophobia, voter registration, and affirmative action demonstrate. On the other hand, as claims to whiteness no longer protect many white people against charges of parasitism or dependence, and provide fewer material guarantees in general, it is instructive that within the field of electoral politics and governance a growing number of people of color have become valorized as the standard-bearers for a producerist and patriotic anti-statism.
In chapter 4 we take up what may be the hardest case for racial transposition, the rise of far-right nationalism in the United States. Yet even here we see race at work in surprising ways. The far right in the United States, which always depends on a potent politics of white supremacy, is also increasingly shored up by symbols, narratives, and visible participation of people of color. From the 2016 Trump campaign to alt-right and alt-lite formations to open white nationalists, multiculturalism is deployed to shore up far-right political projects.
In chapter 5 we discuss the early 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon by armed militia groups seeking a confrontation with federal authorities over land use. We explore the connections—and disconnections—between conditions in the area surrounding Malheur and those marking predominantly Black communities like Flint, Michigan, and Ferguson, Missouri, that have also recently witnessed popular insurgencies. Like these areas, many parts of rural Oregon have been decimated by unemployment and economic crisis. But the legacies of white producerism, we argue, prevent the kind of transformative and far-reaching analyses and demands witnessed in Flint, Ferguson, and more generally within the Movement for Black Lives. What, then, might white rural Oregonians learn from traditions of Black organizing and political analysis to address their own conditions of precarity?
In the Conclusion we reflect on some normative implications of our study and consider the possibility of other forms of identification in which white subjects choose to align with progressive political projects led by and from communities of color because it is in these locations that the political analysis, organization, and legacies of opposition are most capable of producing resistance to privatization and abandonment. From this perspective, white efforts to promote racial justice are not realized through bland forms of “allyship” to support people of color around “their issues” but forged through a recognition of the interdependence between racially subordinated communities fighting their abandonment and heightened forms of white precarity. Resisting state violence, reversing privatization, reclaiming the public realm, and advancing democratic control of public institutions will require the articulation of a political vision that seeks the simultaneous end of both white supremacy and class rule. As we suggest, failure to do so may well enable new forms of both.