The Constraint of Race: Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America / Edition 1

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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

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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780271025353
  • Publisher: Penn State University Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 440
  • Product dimensions: 5.96 (w) x 8.92 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author

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).

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The Constraint of Race

Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America
By Linda Faye Williams

Pennsylvania State University Press

Copyright © 2004 Linda Faye Williams
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0271025352

Chapter One

America's First Undeserving and Deserving Poor

Beneficiaries of the Freedmen's Bureau and Civil War Veterans' Pensions

This is a country for white men and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men. -President Andrew Johnson

No sooner had the war to "free the slaves" ended than the nation's premier leaders make it clear to black and white alike that no fundamental shake-up in the nation's race relations was in store. Succeeding President Abraham Lincoln, "the Great Emancipator," after his assassination, President Andrew Johnson was blunt and direct in his defense of white skin privilege. A southerner by birth, a former slaveholder despite his poor white origins, and a staunch supporter of "states' rights" as an instrument for maintenance of white rule in the South, Johnson blatantly urged that the laws must distinguish between whites and blacks, or they would "place every spay-footed, bandy-shanked, humpbacked, thick-lipped, flatnosed, wooley-headed, ebon-colored negro in the country upon an equality with the poor white man."

To be sure, there were, as there alwayshave been, some white Americans opposed to "white rights"-for example, General Rufus Saxton, Senators Charles Sumner and Ben Wade, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, and many other Radical Republicans. To be white did not (and does not) dictate that one also must be a white supremacist. Still, Andrew Johnson was no synthetic leader. In his determination to keep power in the hands of whites, Johnson was an authentic leader of his day, speaking for most whites, North and South. More significant, his views reflected more than a hundred years of the process of socially constructing whiteness on this soil.

As Arnold Rose put it, "racism grew up as an American ideology partly in response to the need to maintain a reliable and permanent work force in the difficult job of growing cotton." Yet as Rose implies, economics alone cannot explain why government privileged whites in the first place. One needs to look further at the inextricable links and dialectical relations between structure (economic base) and superstructure (political and cultural bases) or more specifically at the complex cross-currents and confluence of capitalism in its drive for ever cheaper labor and higher profits and republicanism with its imperative of a "responsible" citizenry.

Republicanism, capitalism, and racial formation are intertwined in American political development. Take the way republican notions of "independence" have had both racial and economic valences. The Native American's innate "dependency," the Mexican's "laziness," and the African American's "childlike nature" were assessments that had economic consequences in the form, typically, of dispossession of Native American land, appropriation of Mexican land and exploitation of Mexican labor, and total social control and exploitation of black labor. Another example is the way race was tied to American conceptions of property (who can own property and who can be property, for example). Property in turn was central to republican notions of self-possession and the "stake in society" necessary for participation in the democratic process. Independence and property ownership, however, could not be freely chosen. Since colonial times, these conceptions had increasingly been preserved and reserved for whites only, not simply by custom but by law.

Colony charters of the early seventeenth century made it clear that those colonies were for whites. The very designation "white" appeared in laws governing who could marry whom, who could participate in the militia, who could vote or hold office, and in laws governing contracts, indenture, and enslavement. As already noted, the nation's first naturalization law in 1790 (limiting naturalized citizenship to "free white persons") demonstrated both the republican convergence of race and "fitness for self-government" and an unconflicted view of the presumed character and unambiguous boundaries of whiteness. Although "white" is not mentioned in the Constitution, it had appeared in the Articles of Confederation.

The importance of the developing whiteness project was hardly limited to the South. African American political standing in the free states of the North underscored the extent to which citizenship and whiteness were conjoined throughout the nation. At a constitutional convention in Pennsylvania in 1837, in a rousing speech urging extension of the suffrage "to every American citizen," a delegate added, "I use the word citizens as not embracing the colored population." There were no objections. Similarly in the free state of Michigan, a state senator comfortably asserted that "our government is formed by, for the benefit of, and to be controlled by the descendants of European nations. Negro suffrage would thus be inexpedient and impolitic." Then in 1857 Chief Justice Roger Taney handed down the Dred Scott decision, in which he asserted that blacks possessed no rights "which the white man is bound to respect."

Meanwhile, through a set of specific religious, partisan, and power struggles, a line was being drawn around Europe to establish just who was white. This was by no means a harmonious undertaking or instant achievement, and at times it was by no means certain that the Irish, Jews, and other groups would be part of the growing conception of whiteness. Abraham Lincoln-himself personally against the granting of citizenship to blacks, but in the midst of a campaign against the Know-Nothings, a nativist party-put it this way: "Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal except negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.'" It took the need of the Democratic Party for voters in the North, the persistent efforts of the Catholic Church, and both violent and nonviolent efforts of white ethnics to disassociate themselves from blacks to avoid this calculus. By these processes the Irish, Jews, Germans, and a variety of Eastern and Southern Europeans-once conceived ethnically or even as "a race apart"-became white in large part on the backs of people of color. Blacks remained enslaved; American Indians were constructed as neither "citizens" nor "nations" but as "domestic dependent nations"; Asian immigrants were "ineligible for citizenship"; and Mexican Americans became strangers in their own land during the period when many European ethnics were winning inclusion in whiteness.

Making white men the only group fit for self-government and excluding all others on the basis of race and gender did not represent mere lacunae in an otherwise liberal philosophy and democratic creed. These inclusions and exclusions were inseparably woven in the same ideological tapestry of republicanism. Perhaps there is no place this is better seen than in the views of that paragon celebrator of the egalitarian tendencies of republicanism, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, known best for penning the Declaration of Independence, with its famous salute to the equality of "all men," was elsewhere quite clear that he did not include black men in that equation. In Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson explained: "It will probably be asked [if slavery is ended], why not retain and incorporate the negroes into the state." This would not be a prudent course of action, Jefferson maintained: "Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convolutions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race." The republican emphasis on a homogeneous polity did figure in Jefferson's thinking. But he went on to detail "the real distinctions which nature has made" between the two races. He wrote fondly of the greater beauty of whites; he noted with unelaborated portent "the preference of the Orangutan for the black woman" over those of his own species; and he asserted that "in reason [blacks] are much inferior" and "in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous." Such a group was not capable of self-government or of being equal citizens in any way.

That Jefferson would couch the Declaration, a politically legitimating document for the coming war against Britain, in universalist language and the Notes on Virginia in openly exclusionary and racist tones shows that the disjunction between the celebrated American abstract ideal of individualism and actual understandings and expectations was apparent from the beginning of the nation. As Richard Hofstadter concludes, the idea that "all men are created equal" meant "only that British colonials had as much natural right to self-government as Britons at home; that the average American was the legal peer of the average Briton." The freedom to hold and accumulate property was a much more important concern for the Founding Fathers. Most, preferring, as Jefferson did, the rule of a "natural aristocracy," feared the leveling tendencies of the masses, saw themselves as tremendously different from the masses, and defined women, blacks, Native Americans, and other people of color as groups disqualified for full citizenship by their dependency or lack of the great Enlightenment equalizer, reason.

When it came to practically structuring the polity, these actual understandings took priority. For example, the list of qualifications for office was long: white, male, propertied, and Protestant. Thus from the very start of the nation, racism appears not anomalous to the working of American democracy but fundamental to it.

In short, by the time of the Civil War, after more than a hundred years of development in America, race was not only a social construction but also a perception. Whites were conceived and perceived as "fit" for self-government; the darker races were "unfit." Thus long before Andrew Johnson promoted white rights in the aftermath of the Civil War, race was the prevailing idiom for discussing both citizenship and the relative merits of a given people. It was also the most fundamental labor organizing principle in the South.

It is in the context of the mid- to late nineteenth-century construction of race that the nation's first excursions in federal social policy emerge. As Ann Shola Orloff contends, "histories of American social provision often presume that the federal government had no role in providing welfare benefits until the 1930s when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) introduced social security programs as part of the New Deal. Until then, the story goes, the needs of those Americans unable to care for themselves through participation in the labor market were addressed only, if at all, by the state-and especially-local levels of government." Orloff adds that this account is "superficially accurate but potentially quite misleading." She then points to the Civil War pension system as one "rather spectacular exception to local predominance in the welfare field in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries."

Yet Orloff, too, overlooks still another exception, one critical to understanding the legacy of racial politics in the making of American social policy: the relief efforts of the short-lived Freedmen's Bureau. Not only Orloff but most scholars of American social policy tend to ignore the historical significance of the Bureau. It is much more common to set the origins of American social policy in the Civil War pensions, as Orloff does, or in the state and local-level programs for widowed mothers during Reconstruction. Indeed, most scholars consider the pension program to be the first social security system in the United States. With respect to social security per se, this claim has some truth; yet the story Orloff, Theda Skocpol, and most others writing on the prehistory of the American welfare state tell is incomplete, neglecting other significant welfare activities during the Reconstruction period. In fact, had they also included the Bureau, they would have seen bifurcation and segmentation in American social policy much earlier than the New Deal.

Officially known as the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees, and Abandoned Lands, the Bureau was established before the soldiers' pension program, and in many respects these two programs mirror the segmented system that was to become the New Deal. Compared to the Bureau's efforts, the soldiers' pension program was generous, was politically legitimated, and considered to serve the "deserving poor" in much the same way as modern social insurance programs. The Freedmen's Bureau occupied the lower rung of the Reconstruction welfare system. The Bureau, like Aid to Families with Dependent Children from at least the 1960s onward, was politically unpopular and vulnerable and considered to serve the "undeserving poor."

At the same time, as Walter Trattner notes, the Bureau demonstrated that the federal government could provide for the welfare of people on a broad scale when poverty and hardship could (or would) not be addressed locally. Thus there is much to be learned from the Bureau's experience and demise; in fact, many of the debates over the Bureau foreshadowed debates over the American welfare state ever since. Contrasting the Bureau's efforts with those of the veterans' pension system is instructive for what it reveals about the way the privileges of whiteness were first modestly challenged, then fully restored. This was perhaps the first missed opportunity to produce a genuine multiracial democracy in the United States since the nation's founding fathers betrayed the noble principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence by sanctioning the slave trade.

Race, Class, Gender, and the Freedmen's Bureau

During the short-lived Reconstruction period, the task of challenging whiteness and replacing it with a new multiracial democracy in the South fell largely to the Freedmen's Bureau. In fact, the Bureau was an experiment in social policy that perhaps, as Eric Foner concludes, "did not belong to the America of its day." Its official responsibility was to address two problems: the mushrooming economic crisis after the Civil War and the so-called Negro question. What should happen to free blacks? Should they be treated as full and equal citizens or as demicitizens, or should they be recolonized in Africa, the Caribbean, Canada, or perhaps some unsettled area of the United States?

By far the most popular of these alternatives was colonization. Even the most radical blueprints for the abolition of slavery involved, in one way or another, the disappearance of the formerly enslaved.


Excerpted from The Constraint of Race by Linda Faye Williams Copyright © 2004 by Linda Faye Williams. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents




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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