The Neoliberal Train for White Supremacism

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“Some of the commentators on cable television profess to be astounded by the events in Ferguson, Missouri. Only the commentators themselves know if they are genuinely astonished at the disturbances, or if their amazement is just an act for the viewers. But speaking for myself, I, personally, am not a bit surprised, because I have lived through this all before – as have many White Americans… everything old is new again.”

-Stormfront user James Harting, August 2014.

James Harting, a Hitler-avatar-bearing member of Stormfront, the world’s largest white nationalist website, spoke an unfortunate truth; the abuse of police power in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri is not a new phenomena to America (Daniels 2009; Caren 2012; Stormfront 2014). Rather, it is yet another act of white supremacism[1] for which many Americans express surprise, whether feigned or genuine. While it may be argued that the uprising response to Brown’s shooting and other recent police killings has been one of the most dramatic displays of civic engagement in recent history, the behaviors of this old train – the general public, protesters, media, State, and social control – have been running along the same old tracks. As Harting posts further, albeit crudely, the general trend continues in six steps: “1. Police shoot Black Youth… 2. Then Blacks riot; 3. Then police move in with strong show of strength to quell rioting; 4. Then newsmedia tut-tuts police for ‘provoking’ the Negroes; 5. Then police adopt ‘non-confrontational’ low profile to soothe media condemnation’ 6. Then looting and rioting resumes” (Stormfront 2014). The response of the media has also been predictable in ignoring white supremacism.

In tandem, the responsive actions by the white supremacist movement[2] have been largely ignored despite the significant amount of public damage they have caused – yet the public continues to complain only about the disorder and chaos caused by protesters (Sexton 2014; Baldwin 2014; Molinet 2014). Thus, the white supremacist movement in addition to the white supremacist tendencies of the American public and State are largely hidden in the shadow of the haunting specter of the criminalized black man. The media and the American public’s focus becomes so narrowed that we blame the police and forget that by corollary, the State and broader criminal justice apparatus emanate racist behavior as well. The State, employing the police and the overall criminal justice system, exercises the ultimate control of power by not only creating the laws that the police enforce, but also through the acquittal of police crimes. Furthermore, the white supremacism of the general public is hidden– in spite of the denial of racism the soaring popularity and increased traffic of white supremacist websites during events like Ferguson, makes it hard to deny that racism runs rampant amongst the general population (Daniels 2009; Southern Poverty Law Center 2014). This paper argues that Neoliberalism as the new pilot engine for the American train (media, State, the public, etc) is taking us down a road that not only increases widespread white supremacist behavior, but also facilitates the escape of white supremacism from criminal justice attention.

The possibility for institutional and cultural change in social control must tackle the multifaceted monolith of white supremacism: the long, intricate history of white dominance and supremacism in American society, the cultural mythos of social control and the State, and the growth-medium properties of Neoliberalism. First, the incestuous relationship between white supremacism and social control has been well established and goes beyond Mr. Harting’s memory (Oshinsky 1996; Davis 2003; Thompson 2010). Without spending too much time repeating the thorough analysis of the American carceral history by David Oshinky (1996), Angela Davis, and Heather Thompson collectively demonstrate how the State transformed the overt institutionalized racism of slavery into covert institutionalized racism via the post-abolitionist installment of Jim Crow/Black Codes. These policies not only justified the over incarceration of a marginalized population, changing the demographics of prisons from white to black almost over night, but consequentially shackled blacks to a low working class exploited for their labor that continues today. The racist subjugation via criminalization of blacks and other people of color is thus intimately tied with the economy facilitated by State policy (Kapoor 2011). Loic Wacquant’s (2000) ‘peculiar institutions’ demonstrates this concept further by drawing parallels between chattel slavery, ghettos, and ‘judicial ghettos’ or prisons, as a result of the carceral apparatus to ultimately show that its function is to control certain populations and store them as a free labor force.


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The concept that racism is entwined with economic welfare leads us to the pilot of the train to white supremacism – the Neoliberal State. Neoliberalism endorses free markets and an unregulated capitalism – Karl Marx’s nightmare. Basic Marxism tells us that capitalism creates oppression/class conflict because it requires the exploitation of the proletariat by the ruling class to maximize profits (Beirne and Messerschmidt 2011). Naturally, this would make mass incarceration intensely appealing to capitalistic interest as it provides an essentially free labor force and a secondary ability to keep those masses in low socioeconomic status/working class via stigma and robbery of life. In addition, all the ancillary microeconomies of the criminal justice system provide even more economic incentive to incarcerate – the production of new and different types of weapons, armor, vehicles, etc. for the police and everything from security cameras to plastic cups for prisons. Thus, the growth of capitalism is in the interest of the State since, at least short term, it provides economic welfare to the State, which has the power to control our laws and the enforcement of them. The State then becomes a guardian of the dominating white class – the owners of the means of production. The purpose of outlining the State’s role and the economic necessity for racism is to illustrate the current white supremacist tendencies of the State; so that when a white cop shoots a black man whose demographics are criminalized as a function of capitalistic gain, the recognition of power abuse and racism is lost in the overwhelmingly strong myth of the black criminal. The flipside to the criminalization of non-whites has been less articulated but arguably even more important: an us-vs-them dichotomy that defines whiteness as good develops from the contrast to the criminalized non-white ‘wrongdoers’. In other words, we have for so long and strongly lived in a society where we have been taught that the black man (truly extends broader to the generalized non-whites) is a criminal, we arguably see police brutality as an act of self-defense rather than a product of internalized racism.

The second effect of Neoliberalism is the amplified frustration of the working class by the reliance on the incarcerated free labor and more importantly, the move to global economies. As globalization increases, cheaper labor is found in countries where there are few regulations on production and the treatment of workers. This outsourcing of jobs decreases the available jobs in America and increases competition such that the worker is paid less and easily replaceable thereby creating a loss of job security. Combined with the influx of immigrants and poor media portrayal, the working class cannot help but feel frustrated, heightened by an impression that immigrant workers are taking the limited jobs available. This sets up the demonization of non-whites as ‘job-stealers,’ which has increased especially since the War on Drugs that fabricated the association of primarily black and brown people as criminal drug dealers (Kapoor 2011; Beirne and Messerschmidt 2011; Berlet and Vysotsky 2006). Together, these create an image of a labor force comprised of racial minorities that are stealing jobs away from the white working class and wasting the opportunity due to their perceived inherent criminal tendencies – an extremely popular misconception amongst white supremacist activists.

In addition, it is also the tendency of capitalism to create economic deserts by picking up and moving in search of cheaper labor after a surrounding local economy becomes strong enough that workers demand greater wages and rights (Bauman 2000; Nelson 1995; Beirne and Messerschmidt 2011). In America, this amplifies the unrest amongst the working class as it also supports the immigration of workers into America in search of jobs. Also, the consequential multiculturalism is viewed as the erosion of American values and traditions – the increasing loss of the Christian, white, nuclear family that can increasingly no longer reach their American Dream – leads to a terribly misappropriated patriotism (Brown 2009; Berlet and Vysotsky 2006; Borgeson and Valeri 2004). The simultaneous criminalization and disproportionate amount of people of color kept in the low working class thus represents a threat and sign of instability to social order, increasing both white supremacist ideology amongst the general public as well as social control for any sort of ‘social disorder’. In addition to the well-established over-representation of non-whites in American incarceration, there are other examples such as the brutally racist and hypermasculine behavior of border control agents and the lack of attention to a whole spectrum of white supremacist violence even during the Ferguson protests. For example, white supremacists like the Klan have been participating in anti-protests and support for the Missouri police, who have done little to nothing to manage them (Baldwin 2014; Dickson 2014; Kappeler 2014; Molinet 2014; Sexton 2014). Why are these issues so easily missed, or ignored, by the American media and public? It becomes a little more understandable if we look at Victor Kappeler’s (2011) social construction of criminology myth and Foucault’s (1995) docile bodies in connection with Antonio Gramsci’s cultural hegemony (Hill 2008).

As touched on earlier, American culture widely accepts the myth that the police and State are a positive force working for the good of the people – to ‘protect and to serve’. Children are socialized to play the good cop that ‘busts the bad guys’ – a repeated theme in our dominant culture especially via the media, from television, to movies, to ads, etc. However, as Kappeler (2011) points out, this assumption puts an unquestionable faith in the criminal justice system – turning a blind eye to the actual abuse of State power and consequentially police abuse of power. This is a Foucauldian example of how the public is controlled by dominant discourses. We have been disciplined into docile bodies from birth by inheriting the myths generated by the hegemonic dominant discourses that permeate throughout our society. The media blows phenomena out of proportion and is largely responsible for the moral panic that criminalizes people of color as drug abusers, robbers, and so on (Foucault 1995; Hill 2008). The unprecedented trust in our media and State and its institutions becomes obvious when we accept at face-value what we are told, hence the mass confusion even amongst scholars on the true events at Ferguson (Potter 2014). This further fuels the agitation of white supremacism as the initial media coverage on the Ferguson case (which still dominates the mass publics’ understanding of the event) depicted Michael Brown as a perpetrator: a ‘thug’ who supposedly stole goods and provoked the policeman into shooting him. The question of supremacism is thus removed since the police behavior was supposedly rationalized by the provocation of Mr. Brown.

But how could unloading six bullets into an unarmed young man ever be justified as self defense rather than be recognized for what it is – an intentional and over-reactionary response to the supremacist mythos of the criminalized black man. This is an example of the strength white dominant discourse has on controlling our perceptions – creating the myths within our docile bodies so that we continue to believe the State is working for our better interest. Meanwhile, the train rolls along in the blind spots created by the criminal black man myth where white supremacy is not only able to escape the gaze of American criminal justice but also to direct it. A major obstacle to structural change is the many ways white supremacist actions of the police (the State, the American public, etc.) are intimately tied to political economy.

[1] I refer to white supremacism as oppressive behaviors that violate or prevent the accessibility of the civil liberties of non-whites. The white supremacist movement refers to individuals that identify as being superior to others because they are white such as neo-Nazis, the Klu Klux Klan, racist skin heads, etc.

Adrienne McCarthy

Graduate Student
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University


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  1. Analyses of neoliberalism are usually situated around macro issues. This application of the critique of neoliberalism to a specific social issue grounded in a particular event is an outstanding and revealing contribution. This is a truly outstanding piece of work.

  2. You are definitely on point with this analysis, Adrienne. Neoliberalism is so important to understand in the context of police brutality and race. After all, since its inception liberalism has acted as an ideological device useful for perpetuating both capitalism and racism (in a mutually reinforcing manner). I recommend Domenico Losurdo’s book on liberalism so see more of the historic context underpinning Adrienne’s comments, if anyone feels Adrienne’s comments have sparked their curiosity:

  3. The argument that “mass incarceration [is] intensely appealing to capitalistic interest as it provides an essentially free labor force” would seem to hold only if the labor force in question were producing a wide range of products in demand in the general economy.

    Is this truly the case?

  4. Consider this toward penning a population into a particular class of labor. Approximately 97% of people in prison (serving time for felonious convictions) will be released. Bear with me. We have been releasing over 600,000 people with a criminal stigma for well over ten years. While populations are scattered (although largely concentrated in urban areas) through out the country this also becomes a codified second-class citizen population. Deva Pager (2002) conducted a powerful study in Wisconsin concerning work and the status of felon entitled “Mark of a Criminal.” Prisoners may not be responsible for the kind of free labor that you recognize, but stigmatized populations (among whom minorities are over-represented) occupy an almost non-mobile sub-class of citizenry.

  5. @EdwardGreen – In other words (I think), it’s not just in prison that convicts can serve as a free (or low-cost) labor force…. ?

  6. I think the idea is more of creating a large working class inextricably linked to race (provides the modicum of oppression opportunity), not necessarily a free labor force. The free labor force is of course, desirable, but the more useful idea is to use the criminal justice apparatus to create, as Eddie said, second class citizens that are stuck in the lower working class…ultimately woekkng toward a greater disparity amongst classes, keeping the rich a tight, small, elite class thereby allowing greater wealth accumulation (don’t have to share)

  7. Good Piece!
    I have great interest in the interplay between neoliberalism and white-supremacy.

    Greetings from an Assistant Prof. in Social Psychology.

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