The Pennsylvania State University
Cover for the book The Constraint of Race

The Constraint of Race

Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America Linda Faye Williams
  • Copyright: 2003
  • Dimensions: 6 x 9
  • Page Count: 440 pages
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-02253-6
  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-271-02535-3

Winner of the W.E.B. DuBois Book Award presented by the National Conference of Black Political Scientists Winner of the Michael Harrington Award "for an outstanding book that demonstrates how scholarship can be used in the struggle for a better world" awarded by the Caucus for a New Political Science, The Organized Section on New Political Science of the APSA Winner of the Best Book of 2004 on Public Policy and Race and Ethnicity awarded by the APSA's Organized Section on Race, Ethnicity, and Politics

“This excellent, passionate, well-researched, and well-written book is a must read!”
“In The Constraint of Race, a passionately argued book studded with trenchant insights, Linda Williams convincingly demonstrates that the U.S. welfare state was built on the basis of white advantage and black disadvantage. Williams puts race into the story of the American welfare state in a way that cannot be ignored. This is a splendid book by a consummate scholar.”
The Constraint of Race is a first-rate book by a thoughtful scholar-participant. Engaging an ongoing controversial debate, the author convincingly sustains her thesis that race continues to be a driving force in the formulation and implementation of social policy in the United States. Williams’ analyses link the past to the present in an intelligent, comprehensive way that provides an understanding of the important word in her title, ‘legacies.’”
“This is a book about public policy, the pernicious relationship between race and public policy, and the systematic fusion of race and public policy over time. This is a carefully crafted and clearly articulated book about white skin privilege and American public policy. The Constraint of Race is grounded in the concept of liberal individualism and it is informed by critical race theory. The Constraint of Race demystifies the kinds of policies and the elements of race it takes to promote, maintain and advance white skin privilege. The Constraint of Race is a solid, thoughtful, and rigorous examination of the development of American social policy as these policies have systematically disadvantaged African Americans. It shows that in 2004 a critical element in ‘the problem of color’ is the social and political construction of race as it affects social welfare, economic markets, political institutions, and the public policies they produce.”
“As a sociologist I have many avenues of approaching and discussing this difficult and sensitive topic, but this book has given me a firmer foundation to demonstrate the racial inequalities that function within American society from a policy perspective.”

The Constraint of Race offers a challenging new approach to understanding the evolution of American social policy and the racial politics shaping it. Rather than focusing on the disadvantages suffered by blacks in the American welfare state, Linda Faye Williams looks at the other side of the coin: the advantages enjoyed by whites. Her hope is that rendering the benefits of “white skin privilege” more visible will help undermine their acceptance as “normal” and motivate renewed efforts toward achieving a more just and equitable society. Williams begins her analysis by comparing two programs of federal provision in the mid-nineteenth century—the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Civil War Veterans’ Pension system. Already at this early stage of its development, she shows, the emerging welfare state effectively denied blacks the protections it provided white Americans and simultaneously stigmatized blacks as welfare “dependents.” The linkages among race, moral worthiness, and social policy established then have persisted to the present. Her reexamination of key episodes in the later evolution of the American welfare state from the New Deal through the Clinton administration reveals how developments in social policy have advanced the privileges attached to “whiteness” by a variety of mechanisms: the ongoing reinterpretation of the American tradition of liberal individualism in racialized ways; the slow accretion of policy legacies; the construction of “whiteness” itself as a political category; and the normal procedures of coalition building and electoral politics. Through these connected processes, whiteness and the protection of white privilege became fundamental to the operation of American democracy, and their centrality has been continually reinforced by social policy. The result has been a politics in which race is used as a weapon by political parties and candidates to constrain and turn back the American welfare state. Looking to the future, Williams concludes by considering the socioeconomic conditions and political mechanisms that might help overcome the iron grip that white privilege holds on American social politics.

“There can be little genuine progress in solving the so-called race problem or in creating the kind of social citizenship all Americans deserve unless and until continuing white skin privilege is openly acknowledged and addressed. In effect, the problem of the twenty-first century is not the color line but finding a way to successfully challenge whiteness as ideology and reality.”—From The Constraint of Race

Linda Faye Williams is Associate Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. She is the author of From Exclusion to Inclusion (1992).




1. America’s First Undeserving and Deserving Poor: Beneficiaries of the Freedmen’s Bureau and Civil War Veterans’ Pensions

2. White Security: The Birth of the American Welfare State

3. An Assault on White Privilege: Civil Rights and the Great Society

4. The Path Bends: Retrenchment from Nixon to Reagan-Bush

5. Racially Charged Policy Making: Crime and Welfare Reform in the Clinton Years

6. Addressing "America’s Constant Curse": The Politics of Civil Rights in the Clinton Years

7. Whose Welfare System Is It Anyway? The Three Tracks of Social Citizenship and Racial Inequality

8. "The Problem of Race": American Social Policy at the Dawn of a New Century




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