How We View Welfare

In my last post I wrote about the Republican party’s shift in the 1970s to be more focused on race, and to draw a line between white people and black people in terms of identity politics. Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow explains that this was done to create a political coalition of white voters across the socioeconomic spectrum and to break apart potential alliances with low income black and white people.  Alexander continues in her book to show how specific policies became racialize and how stereotypes of black people became attached to policy.

Alexander writes, “During this period, conservatives gave lip service to the goal of racial equality but actively resisted desegregation, busing, and civil rights enforcement. They repeatedly raised the issue of welfare, subtly framing it as a contest between hardworking, blue-collar whites and poor blacks who refused to work. The not-so-subtle message to working-class whites was that their tax dollars were going to support special programs for blacks who most certainly did not deserve them.”

Alexander shows that policies which should have been neutral in terms of race and policies which would have helped both poor whites and poor blacks were used against black people. Higher income white people who had an interest in keeping more of their money and not directing their money toward low-income black and white people were able to frame welfare as a negative and stigmatize it as a program for lazy black people and not as a program for individuals who have been exploited, who have had bad luck, or for people who lacked the opportunities of more affluent individuals. I have written in the past about the randomness of material and fiscal wealth and success, but the racialized framework from the 1970s is so powerful because it played into beliefs that our actions drive our success and that only lazy (minority) individuals will need assistance. The rhetoric developed by the republican party ultimately worked to drive a wedge between white people and black people all while claiming to be race neutral.

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