Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow argues that racial caste systems have been maintained in the United States by stoking up racial attitudes to create a racial hierarchy that distracts us from economic hierarchies. She suggests that white people who have benefitted from racial caste systems in our country are less likely to take action to reverse the situation because of the social benefits of not being black or brown and not living in our country’s lowest social class. She focuses on how political support for African American’s in our country has been diminished to prevent low socioeconomic status (SES) black and white people from joining together and creating a coalition.
Early in her book she writes, “Time and again the most ardent proponents of racial hierarchy have succeeded in creating new caste systems by triggering a collapse of resistance across the political spectrum. This feat has been achieved largely by appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower class whites, a group of people who are understandably eager to ensure that they never find themselves trapped at the bottom of the American totem pole.”
I have come across this theory in other books, podcasts, and mediums and I believe that it is accurate. We support policies in this country that appear to be race neutral at face value, but have disparate impacts on African American and Latino populations in the Untied States. Policies that have been suggested to reduce these disparate impacts will often times improve the SES of not just black and brown people, but of low SES white people as well. However, these measures often don’t find much political support from white members of groups that would benefit from them. Alexander argues that this is a reflection of the fact that white people will lose status relative to black people if we achieve more racial parity, and to prevent this loss of status white people will vote against legislation and will not support policies that reduce inequality and improve their economic outlook.
The main reason I think Alexander’s claim is an accurate description of our politics is because I see identity, as opposed to economics or ideology, as the main driver of political behaviors. During his campaign and throughout his time in office President Trump capitalized on his ability to represent a certain American identity that is distinctly non-black or brown. He does not have any consistent ideologies or economic policy preferences, but he does express a consistent white identity and has enjoyed overwhelming support from white demographics across the board including low SES white groups as well as higher SES white groups. Low SES white people would have likely seen greater benefits from a candidate who expressed more equitable political and economic ideologies, but such policies would not have appealed to their identity and would have diminished the small but real status advantage that white people have over black people at all SES levels in America.
I think my position is supported and can be demonstrated by the reality that most American’s don’t have consistent and intelligible policy ideologies, even those who are well informed. By policy ideologies I do not mean liberal or conservative, but rather policy ideologies formed by specific policy evaluations. Few people truly understand what any given policy does and fewer understand the research and data behind a policy and the specifics of a given policy’s implementation plan. What we do understand, are the signals provided when leaders and officials discuss policy. When looking at such policy discussions abandoning the pretense that we are actually discussing policy specifics, one can see that we are more often signaling to each other what groups and what identities should support a policy. We are voting based on identity, but telling ourselves that we are voting based on ideology. Political game theory and identity are better predictors at this point of human voting preference and behavior than self reported ideology or what we have come to describe as liberal and conservative.