Neoliberal Racism’s Post-Racial Playbook

by R.L. Stephens II on August 5, 2014

When it comes to racism: No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative — it get’s the people going.

Racism has no simple definitions. In a sense, understanding racism is an attempt to grasp the foundation of the modern world — no easy task. It’s no wonder that we find racial hierarchy so difficult to discuss, let alone combat and remedy. In the following weeks, it is my aim to develop a conceptual and historical framework that can help us move beyond the endless “conversations about race”, and begin to identify strategies with the potential to undermine racism’s dominance.

Part 1, How White People Invented Racism, explored the colonial roots of racial hierarchy. I want to now discuss how racism currently operates. Although we typically refer to racism as colorblind, this is a misnomer. Colorblind is an ableist term, plus it fails to accurately capture racism’s contemporary form. Today, racism is not colorblind, it’s neoliberal.

The New Racism?

Today, racial hierarchy has become hegemonic, meaning it transitioned away from coercion-based systems like enslavement and Jim Crow to a racism based on consent.

As domination through coercion became costly, unstable, and ineffective, the form of racial domination grew hegemonic. In most contemporary racialized societies, the dominant race seeks to maintain its power through consent, that is, by actively seeking to convince oppressed groups to accept their norms, views, and practices as “this is the way the world is,” as the “normal” framework of reference. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era

Obviously with policies like “stop & frisk”, the continuing racial disparities in the prison system, militarized border policing, and drone strikes — coercion and violence remain an important element of contemporary racial hierarchy.  Yet, it is the consent-based approach, what Bonilla-Silva calls “color blind” racism, that is the dominant form of contemporary racial hierarchy.

Color blind racism articulates elements from the free market ideology and culturally based arguments to justify the contemporary racial order… by explaining racial matters and even whites’ racially based choices (e.g., residential or mate choices) as the product of (nonracial) market dynamics… Although color blindness sounds progressive, its themes, style, and storylines are used to explain and justify racial inequality. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era

“Color blind” racism, which I will now refer to as neoliberal racism, uses concepts such as equality, meritocracy, individualism, progressivism, and diversity to provide a post-racial illusion that obscures both the colonial roots and continuing impact of racial hierarchy. Neoliberal racism is a global phenomenon, particularly in self-styled “liberal democracies”. Frances Henry and Carol Tator’s book, The Colour of Democracy: Racism in Canadian Society, illustrates that neoliberal racism is not limited to the United States.

Racism as a commanding force in this country is constantly challenged and denied by applying the arguments of democratic liberalism. In a society that espouses equality, tolerance, social harmony, and respect for individual rights, the existence of racial prejudice, discrimination, and disadvantage is difficult to acknowledge and therefore remedy. Canadians have a deep attachment to the assumptions that in a democratic society, individuals are rewarded solely on the basis of their individual merit and that no one group is singled out for discrimination. Consistent with these liberal, democratic values is the assumption that physical differences such as skin colour are irrelevant in determining one’s status. Therefore, those who experience racial bias or differential treatment are considered somehow responsible for their state, resulting in a “blame it on the victim” syndrome. Frances Henry and Carol Tator, The Colour of Democracy: Racism in Canadian Society

Henry Giroux, who coined the term “neoliberal racism”, argues that neoliberalism frames contemporary racial hierarchy. According to Giroux, neoliberalism “is largely defined through the privileging of market relations, deregulation, privatization, and consumerism”.

Strictly aligning freedom with a narrow notion of individual interest, neoliberalism works hard to privatize all aspects of the public good and simultaneously narrow the role of the state to both a gatekeeper for capital and a policing force for maintaining social order and racial control… Central to neoliberal philosophy is the claim that the development of all aspects of society should be left to the wisdom of the market. Henry Giroux, America on Edge

Under neoliberalism, racism is seen as merely a personal and irrational attitude — a moral issue — with no meaningful connection to structural power. According to Bonilla-Silva, this framework allows people to “criticize safely any institutional approach to ameliorate racial inequality” and “blame minorities for their situation” without being perceived as racist. Neoliberal racism is so effective that Bonilla-Silva argues “by buying into this view, many blacks blame themselves for their standing in the United States in spite of their recognition of the centrality of discrimination”.

Under Jim Crow, media was an impediment to racial subjugation because it exposed racism’s brutality with haunting images of beaten bodies and angry White mobs. Now, media outlets are racial hierarchy’s greatest ally. Dominant ideas about race are very subtly cultivated through television and other media forms all while maintaining the appearance of race-neutrality. This type of insidious consent is neoliberal racial hierarchy’s first line of defense.

Paul Ryan & The Post-Racial Playbook

Paul Ryan presenting the House GOP's budget plan, "The Path to Prosperity: A Responsible, Balanced Budget," on March 12.Win McNamee/Getty Images

Paul Ryan presenting the House GOP’s budget plan, “The Path to Prosperity: A Responsible, Balanced Budget,” on March 12. Win McNamee/Getty Images

U.S. neoliberal racism imagines “racial discrimination and inequalities as things of the past” while simultaneously dismantling any state-based anti-racist remedies such as affirmative action and civil rights laws. As Chief Justice John Roberts famously said while striking down a Seattle school district’s desegregation policy, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race“.

In addition to reversing policies like affirmative action, neoliberal racism is also used to justify the broader neoliberal economic project as a whole. Race-neutral concepts like “welfare queens” or the “inner city”, which evoke racial imagery without being racially explicit, allow neoliberal racism to rhetorically advance the economics of neoliberalism by covertly painting public institutions and social services as being “Black” and therefore undesirable. This post-racial wordplay allows people like John Roberts to claim that racism is on the decline while simultaneously intensifying the effects of both racial oppression and economic exploitation.

Martin Gillens’ landmark book, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policybreaks down how neoliberal racism is the primary reason why Americans support the dismantling of welfare. According to Gillens, until 1964, mainstream media outlets offered sympathetic portrayals of welfare policy and primarily used images of the White poor in their coverage.

Beginning in 1965, not only did media portrayals of welfare become much more negative, but the images used in these stories became overwhelmingly Black as well. Despite Black people making up about 29% of the nation’s poor from 1967-1992, Black images were used in 57% of the media stories about welfare during this time. During one of the peak periods of anti-welfare fervor, 1972-1973, when most stories about welfare were negative, images of Black people would account for over 75% of media stories’ on welfare.

Paul Ryan and other “fiscal conservatives” (aka neoliberals) have mastered this post-racial playbook. While speaking on a radio program in spring 2014, Paul Ryan uses race-neutral concepts to make a racialized argument for the further dismantling of social welfare.

You know your buddy Charles Murray or Bob Putnam over at Harvard, those guys have written books on this, which is we have got this tailspin of culture in our inner cities, in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work; and so there’s a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with. Paul Ryan on the Bill Bennet Show

Ryan begins his comments by referencing Charles Murray, a scientist and author of “The Bell Curve” who believes that Black people are biologically inferior to Whites. Currently, the use of euphemisms like “cultural values” are the preferred language of race talk in polite society. When confronted in the days following the interview, Ryan merely apologized for his statement being “inarticulate” and then doubled-down on his comments. He repeated his proposal that the solution to this perceived “tailspin of culture in our inner cities” was for White people from the suburbs to volunteer and mentor Black/Brown poor people in the “inner city” — in essence, like some sort of newfangled missionary trips.

Under neoliberal racism, his error was only in his choice of words — the substance of his racially hostile economic plan could remain unchanged since it advanced the broader neoliberal economic project. Robert Reich, an economist at Berkeley tried to push back against Ryan’s rhetoric.

Republican House budget chair Paul Ryan recently attributed poverty to a “culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working.” That’s thinly-veiled racist bunk. Census Bureau data show nearly 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 experience at least one year below the official poverty line. Four out of five Americans at some point in their lives are unemployed, in or near poverty, or on welfare. Half of all American children at some point during their childhoods are in families dependent on food stamps… Why do Paul Ryan and other Republicans say these sorts of things? I think because he and his ilk want Americans to think of the poor as “them” – different from the rest of us – when, in fact, the poor are us. What’s your view? Robert Reich, March 19 Facebook Post

Though White elites disproportionately control and benefit from entrenched racial hierarchy, they will often use those positioned lower within the hierarchy to advance neoliberal racism’s interests. In the case of working Whites, they are the group most likely to buy into the racist rhetoric and policies of political elites like Paul Ryan — Reich’s remarks were designed to combat this dynamic.

Elite whites, because of their special location in the complex matrix of domination typical of modern societies, exert an inordinate influence on the ideas of white masses. However, it is mistake to interpret whites’ racial views as the direct effect of the ideological work of elite whites. Poor whites… have real agency, that is they participate in the construction, development, and transformation of racial ideology as, after all, it is in their racial interest to maintain white supremacy. Albeit elites attempt to sell their particular racial projects to the masses, the masses themselves are agents in the production and refinement of these projects. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era

Both Ryan and Reich’s comments show that though neoliberal racism relies on consent, it’s rhetoric and policy is still contested. If we begin to understand neoliberalism’s post-racial playbook, it will become much easier to resist and dismantle racial hierarchy.

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