It Explains So Much…

Americans argue endlessly about the reasons for our inadequate social safety net–it’s the influence of the plutocrats, the demise of unions, globalization, capitalism, the two-party system, etc. And certainly, all of those things are contributors to our peculiarly American refusal to  expand government safety-net programs. But an opinion piece that ran in last Sunday’s New York Times identified the real “elephant in the room.”

The reason we don’t have such programs is racism.( It’s the same reason we have Trump.)

The author, one Eduardo Porter, sums up a good deal of social science research when he asserts that the reason Americans have repeatedly rejected expansions of the social safety net is because that expansion inevitably collides “with one of the most powerful forces shaping the American experience: uncompromising racism.”

Why does the United States suffer the highest poverty rate among wealthy nations? Why does it have the highest teen pregnancy rate? Why are so many Americans addled by opioids? We blame globalization and technology. But these forces affect everybody — the French and the Canadians and the Japanese as much as us.

The United States alone has crumpled because it showed no interest in building the safeguards erected in other advanced countries to protect those on the wrong side of these changes. Why? Because we couldn’t be moved to build a safety net that cut across our divisions of ethnicity and race.

Porter revisits the New Deal and later efforts by President Johnson to expand social programs, and reminds us that–along with the positive results we remember, like Social Security and Medicare–there were “compromises” that effectively prevented African-Americans from sharing the benefits of those programs.

In order to win support of Southern Democrats, Roosevelt ensured that major parts of the New Deal excluded nonwhites. The Federal Housing Administration, to take one New Deal creation, is celebrated for expanding homeownership, but it also refused to back loans in predominantly black neighborhoods, or for black people period.

New Deal labor codes allowed businesses to offer whites a first crack at jobs and authorized lower pay scales for blacks. In their first incarnation, Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act excluded domestic and farm jobs, which employed two out of three black workers.

That Nixon was a racist and an anti-Semite isn’t news. Notes taken by H.R. Haldeman (who certainly looked like the prototypical Nazi) recorded Nixon saying “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” That was in 1969.

Reagan excoriated undeserving black “welfare queens.” Bill Clinton, who had promised to expand health care, instead ended “welfare as we know it.” He replaced AFDC with TANF, and funded TANF with block grants that allowed states to play games with the money and, as Porter notes, ” withhold aid as they saw fit.”

Other rich countries have continued to expand and improve health care, education and child care —Porter says that such services today amount to about 10 percentage points more of their G.D.P. than they did in the 1960s. Meanwhile, in the United States, that proportion has barely budged. What did grow was incarceration.

And thanks to Michelle Alexander, we know that mass incarceration disproportionately targeted African-Americans–it was the “New Jim Crow.”

Porter is not optimistic about our capacity for change.

While minorities might eventually reshape American politics into something more inclusive, until that happens politics will be determined by the efforts of freaked-out whites to resist this change. Republicans’ efforts to ensure a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for a generation, like state-level efforts to suppress the vote of people of color and gerrymander districts to dilute their electoral clout, are a clear expression of white fear.

Whether Mr. Sanders or Mr. Biden wins the nomination, the Democrats will spend the rest of the primary promoting an expansive vision for America’s safety net. As they do, they also need to admit that they are envisioning an America that has never existed.

Ask yourself why the United States, alone among the world’s richest nations, still doesn’t provide its citizens comprehensive, universal health care. Ponder why Obamacare is being so relentlessly whittled down by Republican governors, the courts and the Trump administration. Racial animosity is at the root of all this — and until America finally grapples with it, even the grandest plans will amount to nothing.

The Coronavirus pandemic may make it impossible to ignore the consequences of our “original sin.”

The reason I keep harping on voting “blue no matter who” is because over the past forty or so years, the two-party system has basically sorted into a racist and an anti-racist party.  There are undoubtedly still racist Democrats, and people of good will likely remain within the GOP– but given the Grand Old Party’s current base, good will is impotent.

Until we defeat America’s pervasive racism, it’s not just Medicare for all we won’t get–it’s an adequate social safety net.


  1. Is race entering into the current Covid-19 Pandemic disaster? Are people “of color” being denied testing due to the continuing shortage of supplies? What type of medical care; IS there any medical care, being provided for the locked up and isolated immigrants? What about the immigrant children? Has the “New Jim Crow” law returned to hospitals where blacks are denied treatment? Or has the law expanded to Asians being turned away due to Trump referring to coronavirus as the “Chinese flu”? It seems to be a genetic part of the white race to always have somebody to look down on; and now, if it comes to who qualifies to benefit by the short supply of tests, will race enter the picture? Has race entered the picture?

    As an aside; the wife of my son’s co-worker is a nurse, she sneezed on duty yesterday and was sent home untested because no tests available. This made her work situation short-handed and not knowing if she is actually infected (how many of us have suddenly sneezed for no medical reason?), she was sent home to possibly infect her family.

  2. Systemically we create systems which support our continued racist state. Social welfare programs either are middle class programs which do not equally help poorer people who are more commonly People of Color (Title IX – the “big Civil Rights” program in essence – helping middle class women, much more than anyone else) or they are “welfare” programs (e.g. food stamps and similar) are constantly limited and often cut. Where “welfare” programs are effective such as in various European nations, they are commonly programs for all people such as: parental leave policies, financial benefits for parents of young children, mandatory sick and vacation leave policies etc. Similarly, our taxation and minimum wage policies penalize people for being poor in so many ways. Parents of young children can not afford to work because of the cost of childcare. Healthcare is not provided for low-wage jobs. Solutions are often very obvious, but are not “politically expedient”. Valuing capital gains vs. earned income penalizes working people. Much of this seems to me to be very simple and obvious! Democrats have been and continue to be complicit in much of this! Quid pro quos – CT senators protect the insurance interests, Michigan – the auto interests, various states gun interests etc. Certainly Bernie Sanders has a lot of good ideas, however he has NEVER worked seriously building Congressional support to actually change anything. Change won’t come until we build from the bottom up and have a multi-racial alliance, rather than being played off against each other effectively by many politicians and Economic Interests.

  3. One cannot understand racism in this country without first looking hard at white male supremacy.
    IMO racism is the tool used to keep white males at the top. They feed it, they propagate it, they deftly get others to publicly express it, all the while reaping the benefits of divide and conquer.

  4. Theresa,

    You are partially correct, in my opinion, as are everyone else writing so far today. Remember, the ultimate capitalism environment is free labor, aka slavery. Most of this country’s original economy was predicated on slavery. Who were the slaves? Black people stolen/bought from Africa. Capitalism hates overhead cost…like paying labor to make the moguls rich/richer.

    Yes, our racism has much to do with our relatively pitiful social safety net. Yes, it’s the white guys controlling most of the money that they use as a cudgel for the politicians they own. This is where the ironic circle is formed when fascism and capitalism meet to form that prison wall of inequality, classism, institutionalized poverty and segregated churches, schools and workplaces.

    We can parse all the elements of our society, but racism is, as this blog suggests, the driving force by rich white guys, aka Republicans, to keep all of us in our places. Middle class white people are just in a slightly “better” place than poor, black people, but those of us in the bottom 60+% are still scratching for the crumbs. Remember, Republicans have been screaming about “socialism” since Lincoln was shot. Social programs that bring a better quality of life is absolutely not on their agenda, because their wealth and their whiteness would be reduced. Humans evolved as greedy, hoarding creatures fighting off other tribes for scarce resources. Our racist culture today, is merely the same society as it was 220,000 years ago, but with electric lights.

  5. Racism and other forms of bigotry is a mental illness, which allows for one’s conceptions rule over one’s perceptions. It can easily slip into the realm of sociopath. This speaks to the hangings and otherwise ill treatment bigots against “other” races and creeds.

  6. Vernon,

    “Social programs that bring a better quality of life is absolutely not on their agenda, because their wealth and their whiteness would be reduced.”

    Maybe they will think twice after they assess where they will be after the disaster from the Coronavirus has wiped out most of their WEALTH. Let’s don’t forget the Germans changed direction in 1945 after the Nazi debacle. Sometimes, unfortunately, it takes a “smash in the head” to do it.

  7. Vernon missed the part where the DNC is primarily financed by Wall Street, including Joe Biden, who has repeatedly talked about cutting the social safety net.

    Our wealthy founders, many were owners of slaves, concocted a grand scheme whereby the wealthy white male Oligarchs would call the shots economically, socially, and politically.

    What has changed since our inception?

    The unions and communists were ready to revolt and end capitalism until FDR came in to save the Goose. He gave the people what they had been missing since our inception, but he didn’t take away all the wealth accumulated along the way.

    On a micro level, a corporation’s primary purpose is to maximize shareholder value. A corporation has NO social responsibility.

    On a macro level, capitalism’s primary purpose is to maximize shareholder values by whatever means necessary, and social responsibility eats into profits. Limiting corporate taxes is considered good business practice.

    So, what are the effects on the society?

    Capitalism, or the more current version called Neoliberalism, is color blind. Its cruelty is toward the working class. The division of the working class has been around long before this country was founded, or even discovered. The working classes aren’t color blind, so as long as you can divide the working class with ideological wedges, you can keep the masses from revolting against their owners.

    A final note; the economic bailouts are NOT signs of socialism. These bailouts are economic tools of capitalism to keep our economy moving forward (Keynesian tools).

  8. Our problem is compounded, as we will be unable to recover from the Coronavirus pandemic unless we can also at the same time neutralize the Virus of the Mind [new strain of the Hitler virus] epidemic that is so prevalent in the U.S.

    Unfortunately, our BODY POLITIC is suffering from more than just one, potentially, fatal disease. Both have to be successfully dealt with at the SAMETIME for recovery to begin.

  9. To be an American means to be out of touch with reality. How else could Donald Trump be elected President? He hasn’t changed, nor has his constituents. And how about his opponents who stand FLATFOOTED on this SHORT RIDE to the BOTTOM, are they much better?

  10. The VIRUS OF THE MIND is ultimately more dangerous than the CORONAVIRUS as it also prevents a rational response to the CORONAVIRUS, causing which might be better described as a DOUBLE WHAMMY.

  11. To answer your question, Marv, there are no political opponents to what ails us. We have a racist right-wing inheritance granted capitalist on one side, and a Neoliberal Wall Street owned puppet on the other hand.

    Neither one will fight against Fascism or lead society in a progressive direction away from the profit motive toward a centrally planned society that can better utilize all our resources without exploiting people and the planet.

  12. Racism is here but I was raised in a very rural community and there was also a pervasive anti intellectual and anti independent thought culture there. And poor people of any color…and it was almost all white people…..anywhere were looked down on and disparaged. There was no thought advanced as to why they were poor..was it part of the “system” that was keeping them poor? And it seemed as though they said that “if we can’t be elites with great educations, then we will make fun of anyone who succeeds or tries to better themselves. There was never any thought given to the fact that “keeping the poor” in their place kept all of us down. It’s almost as if we were taught that if someone else had something, then we had less.

  13. One of the ways to combat racism that I’ve fond effective to some degree is to teach what has come to be called “Big History”. It’s the story of the last 13.8 billion years starting from the Big Bang. Of course the story of earth and life and humans are a tiny bit of that time span.

    It shows that we don’t have to spit in a tube to find our ancestors. They are all black East Africans and came to become Homo Sapiens only 200,000 years ago. They stayed there hunting and gathering from nature until the growing population and some environmental events created too much competition for the available food so they wandered over the horizon starting only 80,000 years ago until they ran out of horizon about 15,000 years ago. Since then the species adapted to their new homes including changes in skin color and features which worked best where they lived. Also some in the more crowded locales found that growing plants and domesticating animals and living communally worked better than searching for available food where it could be found. That was a game changer that gave them some spare time to invent better tools like ocean going boats.

    Starting about 2,600 years ago our ancestors started chasing the horizon again, this time over water.

    Of course over time the ocean explorers ran into the over land settlers and because they by then looked different they took it as a good time to kill, to steal, and to try other humans as livestock.

    Old habits die hard so those cultures have continued to this day. The concept of race today is still based on those traditions.

    Will we ever accept all that we have in common including ancestors?

    Not easily. Ignorance is that powerful.

  14. Todd,

    “To answer your question, Marv, there are no political opponents to what ails us.”

    Thanks for answering my question. I was too optimistic.

    The only positive response that I can foresee would be from a THIRD FORCE.

  15. Todd,

    With respect to some, miraculous, THIRD FORCE, I would suggest reading:

    “Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement” by Ray Dean G. Pruitt & Jeffrey Z. Rubin (Random House, New York, 1986).

    There’s not going to be any “magic bullet” to alleviate our dual problem: CORONAVIRUS & VIRUS OF THE MIND.

  16. The slave owners in America realized that you if you elevated that White Overseer above all Black People, they would enforce slavery. Even the most dirt poor White Man knew he was higher on the totem pole than people of color. There was also the idea the economic pie was only so big, and even if you had a tiny slice it was better than no slice at all.

    The Cultural, Social, and Religious Institutions all enforced the idea of separation. The separation could be color, religion or ethnic origin. Our Political Institutions reflected this separation.

    The birth of the Soviet Union shook the Capitalist-Imperialist World. The Nationalization of production, often employing brutal means was completed there.

    The reaction in the West was to portray Socialism and Communism as one in the same, even though they were very different. A Socialist system held the promise of equality to every person. A Socialist System would control Capitalism. Capitalism would still exist, there would be controls on Corporate behavior. A Socialist system would mean political power would flow up, rather than being dictated from the top down.

    Socialism was a grave threat to the Capitalist-Imperialist-Racist system and it’s elected representatives. Even though the Proles were subject to Depressions, Recessions, downsizing and out sourcing without any or few security nets, the over riding message from politicians and the Corporate Media was you are suffering now, just wait for the heaven of a new boom and restoration was always on the horizon.

    This boom and bust cycle worked somewhat in the 1950’s up until 1970’s. Then trickle down and it’s sinister brother or sister Neo-Liberalism took hold. It is very evident from Census Data that since the 1980’s the top 20% and 5% have gathered in the nations wealth. Inequality is rampant and once Corona is finished it will only increase. Those at the top will see their portfolios decline 30 or 40%. The Middle Class and Poor will end up fending off the Collection Agency Vultures.

  17. Monotonous,

    “Inequality is rampant and once Corona is finished it will only increase. Those at the top will see their portfolios decline 30 or 40%. The Middle Class and Poor will end up fending off the Collection Agency Vultures.”

    Right. We have to find a short-term answer. More democracy, fairness, tolerance, etc. are not realistic answers, at this point in time. I would strongly suggest we try something plain and simple like MUTUAL SURVIVAL. It wasn’t perfect on the TITANIC, but we still haven’t abandoned ship, at least not at 12:28 P.M. this afternoon.

    We must try and SAVE THE FUTURE before it is too late. We can’t TOTALLY rely on the Democratic Party to save us from this calamity. If we do, we’re the biggest FOOLS that ever existed on the face of Planet Earth.

  18. AMERICANS can’t survive the Trump presidency whether we are Democrats or Republicans.

    Trump/Bannon “hijacked” the VIRUS OF THE MIND, which was the SUB-SURFACE FORCE behind the scene for both Bush presidential victories. Trump is not in a position to separate the disastrous effects from the CORONAVIRUS from that of the VIRUS OF THE MIND, which is NOW his LINCH-PIN. It’ll take us all down with him.

    linch-pin (linch’pin’) n. [OE lynis, linch-pin] 1. a pin in an axile to keep the wheel from coming off 2. anything holding together the parts of a whole

    “Webster’s New World Dictionary- Fourth Edition” (Pocket Books, New York, 2003) p. 375

  19. You know,
    capitalism was always based on inequality! Capitalism was fed by the upper cast and privileged using lower caste including slaves to expand and enrich themselves! From Fifedoms and feudal lords, to the Indian Asian caste system, to slavery, the church hierarchy versus layman, American Manifest Destiny, Leibensrum (blood and soil) the superiority of certain races over others (American and British eugenics) the demonization of Jews and others leading up to the Holocaust, were all driven by capitalism or what its equivalent was at that time. American capitalists built a goodly portion of the German war machine, Westinghouse, Edison, Ford, Charles Lindbergh, Thomas Watson ( IBM) all supported the Nazi movement, and these above mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg!

    Many scientists, those who worked in eugenics, demonized nonwhites as inferior, the Germans gladly picked up on this work, and felt the United States would eventually join them as an ally! There is nothing new here, it hasn’t changed, there is still misogyny, racism, phobic revulsion towards anyone unlike themselves! If, judging by what I’ve been reading online since I’ve had time to now, those unhinged by reality would just as soon see everyone else die, and they be left to rule the world as they see fit! This is not going to change by an election, because many, no matter what their stripe is, feel the same way. And when it comes down to who they think are making decisions for them, they want a clone of themselves to do it! Sadly, the most recent clone/Incarnation they’ve chosen is POTUS.

    American Manifest Destiny led to American Romanticism, which actually exists to this day, American Romanticism looks back to the good old days! It makes people feel that those days were somehow romantic, the reality of the idea does not match the facts of that time! Because a majority of the people were not happy, because Many were hunted like animals, subjugated as slaves, or annihilated as a nuisance!

    Mankind is not a loving species by nature, compassion, ethics, morality, seem to have to be learned! And you can see by the venom and vitriolic tribalistic factions running around like chickens with their heads cut off, those who are in charge, those who take control of the narrative, are evil to say the least! And, when they eventually run out of those that they can demonize, subjugate, and annihilate, they will turn on themselves!

    So don’t think that there will be any changes for the better, this plague circling the globe right now, will probably pass, but it’s going to leave disaster in its wake, but the disasters going to affect those who can least afford it. 40% is an estimation of Chinese economic regression, 14% regression of the US economy in the next quarter, 20% to 25% unemployment which surpasses the great depression is the current estimate. So people will not be dying from the virus anymore, they’ll be dying from starvation because governments will actually be bankrupt. They will have to print money just like Germany did after the 2nd world war, they were walking the wheel barrels full of money to buy one loaf of bread! Scripture says that people will be throwing their money in the streets because it will be worthless, well?, I can see that vividly!

    “‘They will throw their silver into the streets, and their gold will become abhorrent to them. Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them in the day of Jehovah’s fury. They will not be satisfied, nor will they fill their stomachs, for it has become a stumbling block causing their error.”( Ezekiel 7:19)

    “”Wealth will be of no benefit on the day of fury, but righteousness is what will rescue from death.” (Proverbs 11:4)

    This too shall pass? Maybe, maybe not! This is what happens when mankind is left to his own devices, when religion is hijacked by greedy controlling and manipulative con artists. When consciences are scabbed and scarred over so they offer no direction, they offer no signage of danger, they are about as useful as a lot of used toilet paper.

    The apostle Paul said in Romans 12:17, ” return evil for evil to no one. Take into consideration what is fine from the viewpoint of all men.” And Romans the 21st verse which reads; ” do not let your self be conquered by the evil, but keep conquering the evil with the good.”

    Leaders purposely offer convoluted and inconsistent direction because it keeps everyone confused and fighting amongst themselves, finding those to demonize instead of looking at the top of the heap! No good will come of this at all, and it will lend itself to heavy-handed authoritarian control, we are creeping closer and closer to martial law, and even if martial law is not declared, being on a wartime footing carries with it a lot of consequences for everyone.

  20. An excellent analysis, but I always distrust the single answer – “racism is the cause”. I might rate it at 75-90%, but there are other elements in American life that contribute to the problem — while bolstering racism at the same time.

    One such element is the “rugged individualism”/pseudo-Calvinist thread. We glorify the “self-made man”. Adam Smith noted that a man could be more successful by working in the “colonies”. The colonies (and later America to immigrants) was a place where you could work your way into success — but not always, and only if you came here as a free person — and more so a free male person. We blended this with the Calvinist concept of god favoring the “elect” by making them successful. [Please note: I learned my take on Calvinist concepts from a former Calvinist preacher turned Marxist political science professor] The Koch brothers are rich and I’m not because god loves them more — or favors them on a whim — doesn’t matter. Every one just pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Don’t have boots? Too bad.

    Even Jefferson’s grand view was of every (free, white) man owning his own land (stolen from the original inhabitants) and being successful — even more so if he reinvested his earnings into slaves to increase his wealth. To hell with King George, every man could be king of his plantation.

    Another element is our early fear of strong central government. From the Articles of Confederation through Bill Clinton turning his back on the New Deal and declaring the era of big government over, we glorify the states as being superior to the national government. The current crisis might (or might not) lead to rethinking that. Trump’s “let the governors do it” attitude is actually in line with this. Of course, it allows for more progressive state governments — and racist southern governments that opposed the New Deal and Medicare — they were right – Medicare led to desegregated hospitals.

    Like I said, life is more subtle than a single answer, but even the subtleties feed into the racism.

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