Cover image for The Constraint of Race: Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America By Linda Faye Williams

The Constraint of Race

Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America

Linda Faye Williams


$47.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02535-3

440 pages
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The Constraint of Race

Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America

Linda Faye Williams

“This excellent, passionate, well-researched, and well-written book is a must read!”


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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

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

“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.”

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





As the unmarked category against which difference is constructed,

whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its

role as an organizing principle in social and cultural relations.

—George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness

Arguably, race has been the most endemic division in American politics and

policy. Although class is the essential construct in understanding American economic

life and in the workplace Americans often think of themselves as workers,

managers, and owners, class remains the elusive little secret in American

political life. Indeed few, if any, important political conjunctures in American

history have crystallized around American workers acting as a class-conscious

political force.

By contrast, a politics centered on race has characterized the United

States of America since its birth as a republic. Thus the framers of the Constitution

wrangled over how to count enslaved Africans for purposes of taxation and

representation. A civil war was justified in the rhetoric of the hot-button issue

of ‘‘freeing the slaves.’’ The end of Reconstruction was sealed in the infamous

Compromise of 1877, returning responsibility for civil rights to the states. The

stability of the New Deal coalition rested in good part on refusal to enfranchise

African Americans, to pass antilynching laws, and to include most blacks in

social programs on an equal basis with whites. The Great Society—the biggest

expansion of America’s welfare state to date—ensued from the turmoil of the

Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, a fact that became almost instantaneously

the battle cry for massive white resistance.

It was in the context of the dramatic changes wrought in the 1960s that

African Americans, other people of color, and women of all races were finally

2 the constraint of race

included on a mass basis in the American welfare state. As African American,

Latino, and Native American insurgency grew and urban strife became the

order of the day, the meaning and object of American social policy was refocused.

By the 1980s in most discussions, key parts of the social policy agenda,

especially poverty, crime, and cities, were mapped to race.1 In turn, a new and

cryptic vernacular for racial politics developed. As Thomas and Mary Edsall put

it in 1991, ‘‘when the official subject is presidential politics, taxes, welfare,

crime, rights, or values . . . the real subject is RACE.’’2 ‘‘Through these code

words,’’ writes Stephen Steinberg, ‘‘it is possible to play on racial stereotypes,

appeal to racial fears, and heap blame on blacks,’’ other people of color, and

immigrants ‘‘without naming them.’’3 In American politics, race, state, and

party have been much more inextricably linked than class, state, and party.

This is a book about how, when, and why American social policy became fused

with the politics of race, and with what effects for which racial groups over

time. Rather than focus solely or primarily on the disadvantages suffered by

blacks, as most analyses do, I widen the scope to make visible the other side of

the coin: the advantages enjoyed by whites. What we find, in a nutshell, is that

whites have been disproportionately the beneficiaries of the generous and more

politically popular American social policies and that people of color (especially

African Americans) have been disproportionately the beneficiaries of the more

constrictive and politically challenged policies. The result has been a politics of

social policy in which political parties and candidates use race as a weapon to

constrain and at times turn back the American welfare state.

Thus we find an ironic situation: the American welfare state has denied

people of color the social protections it has provided white Americans and then

stigmatized them as welfare ‘‘dependents.’’ This result is an outgrowth not simply

of racially motivated exclusion but also of the particular and differential patterns,

styles, and levels of racial inclusion and the way pejorative stereotypes are

attached to some social policies and favorable ones to others. In effect, Ameri-

can social policies have reproduced racial hierarchy and the American welfare

state has been an instrument more often of social stratification than of social


Concomitantly, I argue that a full understanding of American social policy

cannot be rendered without bringing race to the center of analysis. The

American construction of race has powerfully influenced political and social

policy strategies—privileging whites, wreaking havoc upon people of color,

rendering organized labor less powerful, and generating the least comprehensive,

most laggard and segmented welfare state among all the advanced industrialized

democracies of the West.

To make the argument, I do not advance a grand theory of race. In fact, I hold

that much of the inadequacy, incoherence, and contradictoriness of contemporary

theorizing about race stems from, or is at least obscured by, a tendency to

abstract too far from the concrete social processes within which people are

shaped and shape themselves. Perhaps, then, the best way to try to make sense

of the politics of race in the United States and its impact is by examining concrete

instances of its complex operation.

Several theoretical accounts are, however, helpful in the examination: in

particular the policy legacy approach and the rapidly developing literatures

concerning whiteness and critical race theory. Both of these bodies of literature

are grounded in an understanding of American political economy and what

Rogers Smith has called the ‘‘multiple traditions’’ of the American ethos: liberal

individualism, republicanism, and ascriptive inegalitarianism.5 In short, the

context of how the American racial order unfolded in economy, society, and

polity, each reinforcing the other, each reflecting culture and recreating it, lies

at the heart of the argument. My goal is not simply to include a cultural explanation

based on critical race theory or simply an institutional one based on

policy legacy, but to capture the complexities linking economy, constitutional

structure, policy legacies, public opinion, coalitional and electoral political

grievances, and culture—each an aspect of the American racial order—in the

understanding of the relationship between race and social policy over time.6 Let

us examine the core theoretical elements of the argument.

The policy legacy approach grows out of the work of state-politycentered

theorists. This approach examines how the residue of past decisions

and debates influences the views, interests, and actions of future political leaders

—often creating a lock-in effect that acts as a brake on further change. Thus

changing policy agendas, as Margaret Weir and her colleagues have explained,

‘‘emerge not only in response to new socioeconomic conditions but also on the

basis of—or in reaction to—previous policy accomplishments.’’7 The political

identities of social groups and classes and the potential for political alliances,

moreover, are reshaped by new policies.8

One policy legacy that is particularly important in understanding the

American welfare state is segmentation. As most scholars of welfare have noted,

unlike the Western European countries that have promoted broad, universal

policies, the United States has a segmented welfare system. It has superior and

inferior tracks: social insurance versus public assistance, hidden versus open,

contributory versus noncontributory, federal versus state/local, rights-based

versus needs-based, beneficiaries versus dependents, entitlements versus ‘‘welfare,’’

and ultimately the deserving poor versus the undeserving poor.9

Yet despite all the attention devoted to describing and explaining the

segmentation of the American welfare state, there is little agreement on the

question of why the United States chose the path of segmentation versus the

path of universalism in the first place. Virtually all that is assured is that segmentation

was not created by social policy but grew out of preexisting features

of American life.

Several of these features have been vigorously examined. For example,

scholars have analyzed in great detail the roles played by the constitutional

design of American government (obstacles imposed by Madisonian frameworks),

10 agenda-setting,11 and other institutional-political processes12 in shaping

a segmented welfare state. Others have emphasized the role economic

factors play.13 These studies have produced important insights. Yet the role

played by American political culture in this process remains relatively unexplored.

Analyzing political culture is contextually and historically important,

for neither the state nor the economy acts in a vacuum; rather, as Michael Omi

and Howard Winant emphasize, they are embedded in a web of social relations,

‘‘the cultural and technical norms which characterize society overall.’’ These

norms ‘‘affect the organizational capacities of state agencies [and] their coordination,’’

and react back upon the economy.14 Yet most recent analyses have

deemphasized culture as a defining force in shaping the American welfare state

or ignored it altogether.

The nearly singular exception to this rule concerns the impact of the

American ethos (usually defined as having a solitary strand: ‘‘liberal individualism’’)

on shaping the welfare state. The well-known and widely subscribed

emphasis on liberal individualism (also referred to as the ‘‘liberal values’’

approach) can be understood as a combination of laissez-faire values and Protestant

morality. Openly embraced, essentially it is the belief in boundless economic

opportunity for the industrious, and it measures persons and everything

else by their success in earning income and their ability to secure wealth.

According to liberal individualism, people who demonstrate individual responsibility

and diligence in a free society will be able to take care of themselves

and get ahead.15 Thus all Americans can be independent; no one need be left

out, unless he or she voluntarily chooses to be. In effect a standard of justice is

set forth that holds each individual accountable, for it assumes that one’s fate

is in large measure under one’s own control. Liberal individualism therefore

leads inevitably to the moral condemnation of those who, for whatever reason,

fail to prosper. Core components of liberal individualism are ideas such as a

strong commitment to hard work and meritocracy.

As a civic ideology, liberal individualism gained a foothold as early as

colonial days in large part because of the relative mobility the frontier setting

afforded many white settlers. As the colonies grew in strength and numbers,

so did the popularity of liberal individualism as both ethos and policy. Key

aspects of the legal system and many of America’s institutions embodied pervasive

currents of liberal individualism. The framers of the United States Constitution,

for instance, made strong efforts to keep public and private spheres

separate and well defined. They adopted various provisions to protect private

property and individual economic interests. The task of meeting the needs of

the poor came to be regarded largely as a duty of religious institutions and

private benevolence organizations, not of government.16 According to Louis

Hartz, liberal individualism came to be felt so viscerally that it can be called

‘‘America’s nationalism.’’17

A substantial number of social policy scholars have argued that liberal

individualism played a prominent role in delaying the advent of the welfare

state in America and shaped its segmentation.18 That is, the extreme strength

of the commitment to individualism, hard work, meritocracy, and self-help led

not only to a tenacious resistance to social protection but also to castigation of

the poor as responsible for their own plight. Thus American social policy,

reflecting laissez-faire liberalism, rationalized contributory social insurance programs

as ‘‘deserving’’ because they were ‘‘quasi-contractual’’ measures that

enabled individuals to ‘‘earn the right to benefits’’ through their own contributions;

19 they stigmatized public assistance programs as ‘‘undeserving’’ because

they depended on the arbitrary discretion of state and local authorities in a way

that undermined individual dignity and delivered benefits on the basis of need,

not as a matter of right. In effect liberal individualism undermined the development

of altruistic policy outcomes in the United States.

But having come this far, scholars who point to the role of liberal individualism

in shaping the American welfare state have gone no further. ‘‘At any

given time,’’ according to Weir and her colleagues, ‘‘some potential policy

implications of liberal values are taken up, and others not; sometimes rhetorically

well-crafted liberal arguments work and sometimes not.’’20 In particular,

the insights that illuminated the liberal values approach are overlooked in studies

regarding race and social policy. From an intellectual perspective, it is a

startling oversight; from a political perspective, it is all too easily explained by

the overwhelming biases of the nation’s tradition of liberal individualism itself.

In fact, as soon as race is considered, challenges to the usefulness and

veracity of liberal individualism emerge. One central problem resides in the

ethos’s social construction of freedom, independence, and citizenship. Historically

to be independent in the United States, a household needed to own suffi-

cient property or to have other means permitting it to produce an acceptable

standard of living without having to become indebted or dependent on the will

of anyone else. In an era when whites enslaved Africans and institutionalized

forced labor of many types, liberal theorists pointed out, the concept ‘‘free’’

contained an economic dimension that was tied to the idea of independence. A

‘‘free man’’ or ‘‘free citizen,’’ John Locke explained, was ‘‘one who is independent

of others for life’s sustenance,’’ free to act ‘‘as he thinks fit without asking

leave, or depending upon the Will of any other man.’’21 A person who was not

independent could not be said to be fully free or self-governing.22 Nor could he

or she be expected to be responsible. As James Madison pointed out in Federalist

63, ‘‘responsibility, in order to be reasonable, must be limited to objects

within the power of the responsible party.’’23 The premise that individuals can

control and so be personally responsible for their own lives presumes that the

opportunity to do so exists.

Such opportunity quite obviously did not exist for blacks throughout

much of American history. Blacks were patently excluded from the enjoyment

of liberal individualism and its link to citizenship; they were trapped behind

another fundamental strand of the American ethos (albeit usually treated with

silence or denial): ascriptive inequality or, more precisely, white skin privilege.

Although scholars debate the precise point at which individual racist perceptions

developed into a full-blown popular ideology, the system of economic,

political, and social preferences for whites and subordination for blacks was in

place well before the Constitution was framed.24 By that time a plethora of

local and state laws already defined the status of African Americans versus

white Americans. This body of racial laws and statutes was uneven and varied

from colony to colony; an equally diverse body of theoretical justifications for

the disfranchisement and exploitation of blacks developed during this era.

Hence even before the colonies became a nation, the relationship between

thought and practice was established in respect to race. As Walter Trattner has

pointed out, the first premises of white skin privilege were religious: most colonists

viewed blacks as ‘‘Children of Satan’’ who were ‘‘not entitled to the same

rights as whites and hence, excluded from the social welfare system.’’25 Enlightenment

‘‘scientific’’ justifications for racial inequality followed. By the time the

United States had become a new nation, political citizenship was explicitly

racially inscribed by an act of Congress that declared that only ‘‘free white’’

immigrants could be naturalized.26

Notions of social citizenship implied by the multifaceted American ethos

are even more problematic than definitions of political citizenship. The American

ethos implies that work and the work ethic reside at the core of the American

welfare state; but as it turns out, work, too, is a social construct, depending

on who has the power to define it. The brutal, arduous work from ‘‘sunup to

sundown’’ performed by enslaved Africans was not considered ‘‘work.’’ Instead,

as Judith Shklar argues, work—defined as earning a living—was historically

identified in relation to its racial opposite, slavery.27 A citizen was an independent

worker. The very definition of work has depended on its relation to race

and denoted the hierarchy of white over black.28 In short, the American ethos

mystifies the exploitative relations that not only allow the few to prosper at the

expense of many others but also allow whites to prosper at the expense of people

of color. While the liberal individualist strand of the American ethos posits,

theoretically, a fundamental way in which all Americans, no matter the sources

of their differences, can share a birthright—that is, that ‘‘all can belong no

matter what their background or station, that everyone can succeed if they are

conscientious and diligent’’29—the reality of historic black subordination

reveals just how untenable this myth is. Fixed, ascriptive hierarchies based on

such factors as race, ethnicity, and gender are as centrally constitutive of American

life as liberal individualism and republicanism. America’s illiberal and

undemocratic traditions are as key to understanding the making of American

social policy across time as its liberal and democratic ones.

Critical race theory, including theories of whiteness, helps develop a more complete

understanding of both the various traditions of the American ethos and

their impact on the making of American social policy. Developed over the last

few decades of the twentieth century by historians, legal scholars, and sociologists

of all races, critical race theory posits that race is neither a color nor solely

or even primarily a biological construct. Both who is black and who is white

are socially constructed, and the latter particularly has changed across time.30

Thus race may have some biological meaning, but it is best understood as an

element of the social, economic, and political terrain contested by ‘‘races’’ and

classes in which whites display a sense of entitlement and make claims to social

status and economic advantages, actively struggling to maintain both these

privileges and their sense of themselves as superior.31 To protect white privilege,

boundaries are created that take the form not only of customs, norms, and

traditions but also—and most important—of laws and public policies. The

problem of race and racism, then, is not so much a problem of black people as

a problem of whiteness. Therefore, to speak of whiteness is to assign everyone

a place in the relations of racism.

And what is whiteness? It is first and foremost a result of hierarchy and

collectivism. As Marguerite Ross Barnett wrote, hierarchy ‘‘specifically means

the existence of a principle (racism) that ranks groups consistently and pervasively,

and is enforceable through social control. Collectivism means that each individual

member of a group is treated according to some principle that defines

the whole.’’32

As a result of principles of hierarchy and collectivism, whiteness comes to

have a property value. Monetary or property values associated with whiteness

include but are not limited to intergenerational transfers of wealth, unequal

allocation of educational resources, substantial insider networks that funnel

good jobs largely to whites, and social policies that deliver more generous bene-

fits to whites. Critical race theorists also emphasize that the property values

assigned to whites result not only from contemporary actions and policies but

also from cumulative ones. Hence past discrimination cannot remain the elusive

culprit, for it has legacies for the current historical conjuncture and the

future. Critical race theorists therefore contextualize and historicize their study

of whiteness, calling attention to the ways in which past discrimination helped

whites in a cumulative manner, substantively altering their capacities to assess

the abilities of people of color, and connecting the intentionality of white

supremacist social relations to institutional discrimination.

Whites, however, usually do not have to confront their privilege. To

whites, ‘‘race’’ generally has nothing to do with them; ‘‘racism’’ is a problem

belonging to people of color, not to whites. Indeed, even the best and the

brightest (and most progressive) scholars of American social policy rarely focus

on whites.33

Yet, if one wants to fully comprehend why American social policy has

developed as it has, whites, too, must directly enter the equation. Although a

focus on black disadvantage logically implies a focus on white advantage, the

tendency to ignore an explicit rendering of facts about the historical and current

advantages of whites tends to minimize them, encouraging confusion

about the relative statuses of racial groups,34 hiding the element of force it takes

to maintain white privilege, mystifying the kind of politics necessary to promote

it, discouraging whites from understanding the privileges that accompany

their own skin color, and encouraging them instead to perceive disadvantages.

In short, without an explicit examination of both sides of the coin—groups

advantaged and groups disadvantaged in the nation’s social policy regime—

whiteness becomes normalized and invisible, and relations of dominance are

submerged.35 As a result, whites develop such a powerful sense of entitlement

that they do not question their ability to pass out the spoils of racial discrimination

in banking practices, the criminal justice system, housing markets, media

representations, educational arrangements, and social policies to succeeding

generations. Instead they see themselves as the genuinely deserving progenitors

and heirs of liberal individualism: people who have received their superior

status the old-fashioned way, they ‘‘earned it’’—a justification that has gone

through religious, pseudo-scientific, and cultural renditions.

It should be clear, critical race theorists conclude, that little or none of

white privilege is maintained by blatant racists; rather institutional and structural

mechanisms and public policy maintain it, both materially and psychologically.

36 Moreover, white privilege is shared by all whites, affluent and poor,

albeit to varying degrees. This sharing is especially salient in regard to the cultural

and moral dimensions of white skin privilege.37 Still, white skin privilege

is usually less a matter of direct, referential, and snarling contempt than a system

for protecting the privileges of whites by denying people of color opportunities

for asset accumulation and upward mobility.

It also should be clear that opposing whiteness is not the same thing as

opposing whites. White skin privilege is an equal opportunity employer; people

of color can become active agents of white privilege as well as passive participants

in its hierarchies and rewards. For some people of color, one means of

becoming an insider is by participating in the exclusion of other outsiders. On

the other hand, if every promoter of white skin privilege is not white, it follows

that not all whites have to become complicit with white skin privilege, that

there is an element of choice. Indeed, despite the material and sociopsychological

interests white privilege confers, there are ample examples of whites actively

struggling against whiteness. How else does one explain the Radical Republi-

cans of the Reconstruction era, or the white champions of civil rights in the

1960s and 1970s, or such presidents as Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson,

or for that matter the intellectuals who created the journal Race Traitor in 1992,

whose manifesto is to abolish whiteness, defined as a barrier to justice and

equality that cannot be overcome until the privileges of white skin are abolished?

In short, critical race theorists emphasize that although people do not

choose their assigned racial group, they do choose whether to be racist or not.

This choice, however, is not made within a vacuum; it occurs within a social

structure that gives value to whiteness and offers rewards for racism.

The following chapters apply insights from critical race theory and the policylegacy

approach to understanding the role of whiteness in structuring the

American welfare state. Briefly, I argue that the welfare state was grafted onto

preexisting conditions of race relations. Segmentation in American social policy

had many roots, but since so many have previously underemphasized or

ignored it, my focus is on how segmentation grew out of established boundaries

that privileged whites and penalized blacks.38 As the welfare state evolved, policy

feedback, more often than not, further solidified the privileges of whiteness.

This development was not simply an ‘‘inadvertent consequence’’ of a fiscally

circumscribed welfare state.39 Particularly up through the 1960s, the superior

programs of the American welfare state were disproportionately white and

male because they were designed to be so. Race and party politics interacted in

ways that negatively shaped debates over social policies. Arguments during the

legislative battles that shaped these programs often explicitly and openly discussed

‘‘the Negroes’’ and by corollary (though rarely directly) white racial

interests. Since then, this battle has continued through code words in debates

over the welfare state. For much of its history, the American welfare state offi-

cially, consciously, and intentionally advantaged whites as it disadvantaged

blacks and other people of color. To focus attention only on black disadvantage

is to allow citizens and policy makers alike to continue to ignore the privileges

associated with whiteness and to allow these privileges to be considered simply


The normalcy of white privilege in American social policy has both ideological

and material sides. On the ideological side, the moral worthiness of

those who benefit from social policies is racially cast, and the same stereotypes

are used over and over until eventually the idea of dependency inscribed in

social policy has a racial meaning.

On the material side, the American welfare state has been and remains

steadfastly racially stratified or segmented. Whites benefit disproportionately

from the good welfare programs, such as social insurance, employer-provided

health and pension benefits, and hidden welfare of tax expenditures—programs

so good that they are rarely even admitted to be ‘‘welfare.’’ Meanwhile, people

of color are relegated to the bad welfare programs, highly visible and readily

stigmatized—that is, means-tested programs. The welfare state thus institutionalizes

white privilege, a development that tends to serve as a constraint,

particularly since the 1960s, on the development of social policy.40

It is this process of constraining the development of an appropriately formulated

and sized welfare state in the United States that makes whiteness a

problem for all those who would benefit from a guarantee of at least a modicum

of economic security not dependent on the market or inheritance. Although

people of color are most harmed by the holes and flaws in American social

policy, ultimately the objective interests of the white working class and unemployed

are also diminished. Through a battle that pretends to be about race

and dependency, poor whites are encouraged to oppose the very policies they

need. When poor whites are persuaded that ‘‘the blacks get more,’’ they come

to support the diminution of the welfare state in general and the cutting of

specific policies that could improve their life chances in particular. Meanwhile,

millions of poor whites, too, suffer from economic hardship, social stigma, and

political disempowerment;41 thus the significance of whiteness for the American

welfare state and party politics. When liberal individualism and whiteness

combine to reinforce derogatory meanings inscribed on beneficiaries of meanstested

programs, poor people of color suffer most, but the poor of all races


In sum, developments in American social policy since the Civil War have

persistently advanced the privileges that attach to whiteness through a variety

of mechanisms, including 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

processes of coalition building and electoral politics. Through these connected

processes, whiteness and the protection of white privilege have come to be fundamental

to the operation of American democracy, and their centrality has

been continually reinforced by American social policy, broadly considered.

Before we turn to the detailed development of this argument, one additional

question needs to be addressed: how do class and gender enter the analysis of

race and social policy?

First, despite linkages between whiteness and meager outcomes for the

poor of all races, I will not argue that racial politics is a form of class politics.

White skin privilege has been such a constant in America since colonial times

that race has taken on a life of its own. Thus it bears repeating: a wide array of

whites regardless to class demonstrate commitment to whiteness.

W. E. B. Du Bois explained this tendency many years ago. First, he

pointed out that the decision of white workers to define themselves by their

whiteness is understandable in view of its short-term advantages. At some

times and in some places, such advantages show up in paychecks, where the

wages of white workers are higher than those of people of color.42

But even when white workers receive a low wage, Du Bois added, they

are compensated in part by a ‘‘public and psychological wage’’ that amounts to

a tangible benefit acquired at the expense of people of color. They are given

public deference because they are white; they are treated more leniently by the

police because they are white; they are welcomed in any community where they

can afford to buy a house because they are white; their children are more likely

to be welcomed in the best schools because they are white; they can shop in

any store without being treated as suspect because they are white; and so forth.

By these means the status and privileges conferred by whiteness can be used to

make up for alienating and exploitative class relationships. It is this psychologi-

cal wage, more than anything else, that makes white workers forget their

nearly identical objective economic interests with poor and working-class people

of color and accept stunted lives both for themselves and for those more

oppressed than themselves. In this way, white skin privilege undermines not

only working-class unity but the very vision of many white workers.43

Thus, even when in practice poor whites have low economic and social

status in comparison with other whites, their status concerns have the capacity

to doom prospects for cross-racial collective action. In fact, social analysts and

politicians alike have long remarked that racism plays an important role in

maintaining the self-esteem of poor whites.44 The very history of conservative

politics, in many ways its essence, is based precisely on the exploitation of such

apparently irrational behavior. Even among political elites, Sidney Verba and

Gary Orren conclude,

values do not merely rationalize action in accordance to self-interest.

Often they arise quite independently of an individual’s life experiences

and in turn play an independent role in molding political behavior.

Such behavior reflects people’s group attachments and antipathies,

and concern for larger purposes that transcend their own immediate

situation. Thus, politics often resembles more closely the world of religion

than the world of economics.45

It is in such a context that white skin privilege becomes the way in which white

elites and white workers see the world. This problem has confounded classbased

political organizing in the United States for more than two centuries. In

fact, it is scarcely an exaggeration to conclude that white laborers in the United

States are the least Marxian-acting working class in the world. In sum, in the

United States, support for white skin privilege comes from both above and

below. White workers do not just receive racist ideas but embrace, adopt, and

at times murderously act upon those ideas. While false consciousness is certainly

a problem, the more critical problem is that the white working class

comes to think of itself and its interests as white.46 In effect, white privilege

and self-interest do not develop along separate tracks; rather white privilege

helps construct individual whites’ notion of self-interest across classes, in effect

linking the presumed interests of the self to those of the collectivity.

Yet, despite the powerful role race plays in fracturing classes and genders,

race, class, and gender remain inextricably linked. Thus my goal here is not to

draw a precise line separating race and class but to draw a line around race and

class to emphasize the interaction of race, class, and gender in political struggles

and social policy outcomes. The focus is not only on the ways in which

race has served as a barrier to the solidarity of the working class or women in

the United States but also on the suppression of alternatives that could have

permitted the poor and working classes of all races to join in demanding equal

justice. In effect, class and gender issues are viewed through the prism of race,

and race issues through the prisms of class and gender.

Quite arguably, this is the way race, class, and gender have always functioned

in real life in the United States. That people of color are disproportionately

part of the poor and working classes is an overt manifestation of the

inseparable race/class link. That policies designed to maintain a cheap labor

force end up disproportionately harming people of color is another overt demonstration

of the race/class link. Moreover, in everyday life it has usually been

impossible to separate race demands from class demands from gender demands.

For example, the black women’s club movement at the turn of the twentieth

century—heavily engaged in the politics of providing services to blacks—

viewed poverty work as race work as women’s work, and race issues as poverty

issues as gender issues. They could not and would not separate class, race, and

gender as distinctive spheres. To work for welfare was to work against class

inequality and against racial and gender discrimination. In their view, without

some minimum level of economic well-being and dignity, people could not

function as citizens. Social rights were civil rights were human rights.47

When civil rights activists of the late 1960s sloganized ‘‘What difference

does it make to desegregate a lunch counter if you can’t afford a hamburger?’’

they were clearly not just demanding the end of racial exclusion; at bottom

they were also demanding class equality. When 250,000 people marched on

Washington for ‘‘jobs and freedom’’ on August 28, 1963, they were obviously

cognizant of the interaction of race and class. Walter Reuther of the United

Automobile Workers, speaking at the march, called for full and fair employment.

A. Philip Randolph summed up the inextricable link between race and

class by concluding: ‘‘But this civil rights revolution is not confined to the

Negro nor is it confined to civil rights, for our white allies know that they

cannot be free while we are not and we know that we have no future in a

society in which six million black and white people are unemployed and millions

more live in poverty.’’48 When the Reverend Martin Luther King in his

last crusade decided to dramatize the plight of the poor, the links between

racial oppression and class exploitation in the United States had been brought

to the center of the civil rights protest.

It is also evident that racial advancement has nearly always meant class

and gender advancement. In the nineteenth century, white women, struggling

for abolition of slavery, found voice for their own claims for political and equal

rights; they did so again roughly a century later in the midst of the Civil Rights

Movement. Similarly, providing education for ‘‘freedmen’’ after the Civil War

boosted the provision of public schools for whites, too, throughout the South.

Eliminating the poll tax midway through the twentieth century brought far

more poor whites than blacks to the voting booths. Expanding welfare in the

mid-1960s gave millions of poor white mothers and children access to

improved government aid. Even a policy stigmatized as ‘‘race-specific,’’

affirmative action, helped hundreds of thousands of white women enter colleges,

secure employment, and gain promotions. There is a universal side of the

demand for racial equality. Thus my goal here is to comprehend social policy

in the United States by unpacking the package of whiteness as it has influenced

the interaction of race, gender, and class.

A historical approach is appropriate for a study of race and American

social policy for two principal reasons. First, this approach falls squarely within

the tradition of studies of social policy. In fact, most of the important works on

American social policy have been explicitly historical, concerned either with a

decisive moment of creation (usually the New Deal) or with a period of development

spanning several decades and seeking to answer a common set of ques-

tions by using inductive reasoning and a wealth of empirical evidence: How are

new programs created? What is responsible for their subsequent development?

49 Second, a historical approach is necessary because an inadequate confrontation

with the past and examination of its effects on the current

conjuncture has done a great deal to warp and distort perceptions of racial

issues. These distorted perceptions have practical effects. Without an appreciation

of the past, for instance, many whites are unable to appreciate the injustice

and brutality that have been necessary to maintain them in their privileged

position. This in turn makes them more unwilling to accept measures necessary

to undo, to the extent possible, what has been done. Thus they continue to feel

entitled to their privileged position and utterly fail to appreciate the accumulated

injustices on which it rests. In sum, to begin in the current era and take

a positivist approach would tend to hide the benefits of accumulated privileges;

a historical approach enables one to see not only how such privileges originated

and evolved but also what havoc they still play with any notion of a meritocracy

in which whites (males especially) ‘‘deserve’’ to be at the top.

However, in the historical account that follows—covering nearly a century

and a half—I quite obviously do not seek to provide a comprehensive

description. Rather I seek to provide a compact and coherent reanalysis of key

episodes in the development of American social policy, and thus to illuminate

a deceptively simple and yet usually neglected theme of American political

development: American social policy has consistently and cumulatively constructed

and reinforced white privilege through the normal workings of American


Chapter 1 begins the historical analysis by contrasting the politics that created

the Freedmen’s Bureau with the politics that created the Civil War veterans’

pensions. The aid provided by the Freedmen’s Bureau to black men and women

and their children was from the start meager, time-limited, and stigmatizing.

It rapidly disappeared from the American agenda. Veterans’ pensions—going

disproportionately to white men, women, and their children—however, were

very generous by nineteenth-century standards, were open-ended, and rapidly

increased in coverage and amounts of stipends. Contrary to the claims of some

prominent social policy scholars,50 Civil War pensions did not treat African

Americans fairly and honorably. More important, political debates over the two

federal programs foreshadowed what was to come. President Andrew Johnson

and the Democrats in the mid–nineteenth century opposed the Freedmen’s

Bureau as likely to make blacks ‘‘dependent,’’ as too expensive, as unfair to

whites, and as very probably a threat to racial hierarchies. In the meantime,

the generous aid to northern veterans of the Civil War and their widows and

children was viewed as wholly justified, and in the end veterans’ pensions

became virtually an old-age insurance program. As we shall see, the ideological

construction of difference surrounding the two programs foreshadowed debates

on social policy for more than a century to come. Indeed, the origins of the link

that joined race, moral worthiness, and social policy lie in the history of the

Freedmen’s Bureau, and in particular in Andrew Johnson’s construction of it as

a program that catered to special interests and promoted black dependency. As

the American ethos and white skin privilege institutionalized moral worthiness

or desert according to race during the mid– to late nineteenth century, so it

would do in following periods of American social policy innovation.

Andrew Johnson’s construction of social policy resurfaces in debates at

the creation of the welfare state proper, the New Deal, and was used by its

opponents. Chapter 2 explores how the New Deal, rather than upsetting the

apple cart of whiteness, expanded it legally through exclusion of African

Americans from its ultimately most successful innovation (social insurance) and

allowing southern states to discriminate in distribution of ‘‘relief.’’ The second

leg in the development of the welfare state (hidden welfare benefits such as

employer-provided health insurance, pensions, and so forth) also virtually

excluded blacks and women. Differential treatment of black and white workers

in labor markets is a central part of this development, and thus the policy process

itself appears to be neutral in respect to race and gender. What really

emerges, however, is an understanding of how seemingly neutral policies usually

just reproduce the discriminatory systems they are grafted upon. In the

creation of both social insurance and hidden welfare programs, white males

were advantaged by virtue of the institutional racism that provided them most

of the best jobs in the labor market. White worker organizations, especially

craft unions, were complicit in this process. Finally, such programs as federal

housing assistance and agricultural support also solidified white advantage. The

bifurcation of the New Deal system solidified, not reversed, white skin privilege.

Chapter 3 shows how in a time of prosperity, with a president who could

claim a mandate and a Congress heavily dominated by members of his party,

an unprecedented assault on white privilege, the Civil Rights Movement,

resulted in new, more inclusive social policies. From new civil rights legislation

to the War on Poverty in particular and the Great Society in general, the formerly

excluded found a measure of inclusion. For a brief moment the privileges

of whiteness faced a substantial and, in some important ways, successful challenge.

Still the legacies from the past were influential, if not determinant.

Rather than benefiting from more universal programs, people of color (especially

blacks) were walled off behind those programs that were most stigmatizing

and least generous. To a large extent, whites rejected the Great Society

programs because they saw African Americans and any program thought to be

designed primarily to address their needs as unworthy. When the Civil Rights

Movement subsided, the time was ripe for a counterattack on the newly segmented

programs that isolated people of color. As a result of this mounting

counterattack, it became clear that for all Johnson’s attempts to understand

‘‘black power,’’ for all blacks and their sympathetic white allies’ attempts to

challenge the entrenched benefits of whiteness, the assault on white privilege

in the 1950s and 1960s would remain woefully incomplete. To be sure, after

the civil rights revolution, the operation of white privilege would not and could

not proceed as before. White racism in an era of legal racial equality would

have to don new clothes. Modern racism, depending mainly on cultural arguments,

was subtle and often unconsciously practiced. The principle of racial

equality found widespread acceptance even as whites rejected policies to implement

it and sought to maintain their social distance from people of color.

Although most whites came to consider themselves free of racial bias, nevertheless

they continued to prefer white skin and embrace its privileges. Indeed, by

at least 1968, white Americans proved the power of their resistance to any

further encroachment on white privilege and elected Republican Richard

Nixon, who had campaigned on a promise to reinvigorate ‘‘states’ rights’’—a

symbol well understood by southern whites in particular, who were highly

vocal in their support of white power. In the face of a Democratic Congress,

Nixon proved unable fully to overturn policies and programs that had cut modestly

into the power of whiteness, but the process of retrenchment had begun.

Chapter 4 analyzes how Ronald Reagan and to a lesser extent George

H. W. Bush sought to perfect what Nixon had begun. Devoted to fully restoring

the normality of white skin privilege, Reagan through the use of racial symbolism

and administrative efforts sought to undercut any social policy (and law)

that challenged whiteness. Symbolically he railed against civil rights leaders

and declared that racism was virtually a thing of the past. In fact, white men

were now suffering from reverse discrimination, according to the most popular

American president of the late twentieth century. When Reagan could not win

in Congress, he appointed a man supportive of white privilege as secretary or

under secretary of any department that oversaw any policy he deemed to cut

into the property value of whiteness. He also, obviously with the complicity of

Congress, cut spending for any agency whose job it was to enforce equal opportunity

in particular and civil rights more generally. Reagan had the ability to

convince a white population frantic about recent encroachments on its privileges

that blacks had made not just some progress but tremendous progress.

More than on any other single dimension, whites who believed that blacks had

made ‘‘lots of progress’’ were the least likely to support policies now identified

with blacks, such as welfare, affirmative action, full employment, and food

stamps. Yet one demonstration of the changing ideology of white privilege is

found in the necessity for a politics of racial code words, symbolism, and subterfuge

in the Reagan-Bush years. Long gone were the days when unvarnished

race appeals worked.

Chapters 5 and 6 examine the Clinton years. Social policy developments

in three key areas (crime, welfare reform, and affirmative action) are at the center

of the analysis. The focus is on how important historical and analytical contexts

explain why Clinton, despite his rhetoric on race and his enormous

popularity among African Americans, was largely a captive both of his own

political surroundings and ambitions and of historical trends beyond his control.

Chapter 5 presents the evidence in regard to crime and welfare reform;

Chapter 6 examines affirmative action and other race initiatives. The roles racial

politics and the legacy of white skin privilege played in constraining policy

options and shaping policy outcomes in the 1990s are the main focus. These

chapters pivot on an irony: Clinton was elected with the broad support of Afri-

Introduction 23

can Americans but presided over retrenchment in social policy and the enactment

of policies that were detrimental to African Americans. And still his

strongest support came from African Americans! The class implications of a

‘‘new black politics’’ in which black leaders and politicians vigorously mobilized

to defend affirmative action but were nearly missing in action when it came

to welfare reform are explained. In sum, these chapters explain why Clinton’s

progressive policy ambitions were so stunted in the first place and why in some

notable instances policy moved farther to the right than many would have predicted.

The results of welfare reform, the president’s race initiative, crime policy,

and other key social initiatives are revealed not only to have failed to

challenge whiteness but to have supported it. It also is shown that arguments

that emerged as far back as the mid–nineteenth century to rationalize the property

value of whiteness remained the order of the day throughout Clinton’s two

terms. In many ways, it was de´ja` vu: Andrew Johnson could have been speaking

for many Republicans once their party won control of Congress. In short,

race has always figured in the calculations of policy makers, but its significance

for the Clinton years was that a racial mythology of the welfare state had

become so entrenched in party politics that it constrained the policy alternatives

of a president who seemingly favored progressive change. The politics of

race in reforming crime, welfare, and antidiscrimination policies during the

Clinton years were, once again, shaped by underlying patterns of discrimination

to the disadvantage of people of color.

Chapter 7 presents data to help draw conclusions about where, in a new

millennium, white privilege stands. Socioeconomic data are adduced to show

how dramatic racial inequality remains in practically any arena of desired values.

Whites remain far ahead of blacks and Latinos and ahead of the much

more highly educated Asian population in nearly every socioeconomic category

imaginable. The extent to which social policy also continues to reflect white

skin privilege is analyzed. It is shown that after more than sixty years of being

a welfare state, the United States’ particular brand of social policy elevates, not

challenges, whiteness. Blacks and whites remain disproportionately served by

different programs. Those in which whites are overrepresented are still the most

generous; those in which blacks are overrepresented are still the least generous.

Whites remain privileged in the nation’s social policy regime.

Chapter 8 focuses mainly on what is to be done to produce a more just

and equitable social policy regime. A short list for programmatic change is pre-

sented, but it is stressed that these programs are unlikely to materialize without

a new politics. What is required is a frontal challenge to the power of whiteness

and a demonstration to those at the bottom of the white hierarchy that their

interest lies with their own class among racial minorities. Despite the difficulty

of achieving such an outcome, there clearly is hope that the mainly dispiriting

history chronicled in this book can be overcome. That the tide can turn is

shown by suppressed historical alternatives, by the times in which whiteness

was seriously challenged by many whites and people of color alike, and by the

moments in which genuine progress was made. Twentieth-century America

was hardly all stalemate in the politics of race and social policy. The fact that

the years since 1980 can be seen as a period of turning back indicates that there

were also moments in which the nation raced forward. With the development

of a new politics, it could do so again. Thus, the book ends with an identification

of some potential developments that might provide a window of opportunity

to overcome the seemingly iron grip of white skin privilege.

The findings in this book strongly challenge the notion that the American

social policy regime has disproportionately benefited people of color. Instead it

is shown in copious detail that from its inception, the American welfare state

has done a great deal more to solidify white privilege than to challenge it. From

the mid–nineteenth century through the close of the twentieth century, white

privilege in the American welfare state was the order of the day. The next chapter

begins to flesh out the argument. It explains the prehistory of the welfare

state: beginning with the post–Civil War period.